Yoghurt is without doubt the most famous fermented food in the world. It is an excellent breakfast option, it can be consumed by children and grown-ups as a snack and it also lends itself perfectly to even complicated recipes for sweet and savoury dishes.
A tasty, nutritious and healthy food, yoghurt can be found in many different forms on the market. One product differs from another, usually because of its origin (either animal or vegetable) and because of its fat and sugar content. Here is everything you need to know about the history, properties and uses of yoghurt.
The history of yoghurt goes back a long way. It is said that it was already known to herdsmen in Central Asia in the sixth century before Christ. According to some ancient documents, the Greeks used to eat it with honey, whereas the Romans, even though they were familiar with it, deemed it to be an eating habit of the Barbarians.
Consumed extensively in the East, yoghurt began to become known at the beginning of 1900 when it attracted the attention of some scientific researchers.
Thanks to a study conducted by the microbiologist Stamen Grigorov, yoghurt become the subject of a research project by the Russian immunologist and biologist Il’ja Il’ič Mečnikov who was also a pupil of Pasteur, as well as a Nobel-prize winner for Medicine in 1908. He was interested in the ageing process of the people from Caucasus and believed that yoghurt was a source of longevity.
His revolutionary work served to identify the health-giving properties of the lactic-acid bacteria in yoghurt and had a great impact on society. Because of him this product became fashionable in Europe and his efforts led to the creation of the first industrial plant for yoghurt production in 1919.
Yoghurt is made by fermenting milk, an age-old custom originally developed to preserve milk without removing the whey. Fermentation takes place due to the action of two specific lactic-acid bacteria whose names are Streptococcus Thermophilus and Lactobacillus Bulgaricus.
This process causes the lactose (milk sugar) to break down into lactic acid, which is the reason for the characteristic sour taste that we find in yoghurt, but it especially means that yoghurt is especially indicated for people who are lactose-intolerant or lactose-sensitive. The fermentation process makes milk proteins more digestible as well.
According to the Italian Ministry of Health, upon consumption yoghurt should contain at least 10 million live microorganisms per gramme and 1 million of these must belong to one of the two strains characteristic of yoghurt.
Besides being especially popular for its flavour and versatile nature, yoghurt also brings health benefits and provides nutritional substances like protein, calcium, vitamins A, E, K and Group B vitamins. The enzymes in yoghurt facilitate digestion, help to prevent some kinds of colon infections and boost our immune defences.
The cultures in yoghurt have a marked probiotic effect, meaning that they are still live and active when they reach our intestine, where they multiply, strengthening our intestinal microflora and contributing to the health of the entire body.
What is more, the lactic-acid bacteria in yoghurt help us to avoid the discomfort of a bloated stomach. Another important factor is that yoghurt imparts a feeling of satiety and helps to keep the glycaemic index under control.
Natural yoghurt (the classic white yoghurt) only contains two ingredients: whole or skimmed milk and Streptococcus Thermophilus and Lactobacillus Bulgaricus cultures.
Due to its sheer simplicity and versatility, yoghurt is a staple ingredient in the kitchen: it can be eaten plain, with dried or fresh fruit for a healthy and tasty breakfast or mid-morning snack, instead of milk when you are making cakes or biscuits, or as a replacement for mayonnaise to make light sauces.
Like all foods, yoghurt should be consumed in moderate amounts unless you suffer from intolerances or certain medical conditions. In its guidelines, the Italian Society for Human Nutrition recommends between 1 and 3 servings of milk and yoghurt per day. One serving amounts to 125 ml.
Ms Cecilia Dieci
Biologist and nutritionist