Are Dairy-Free Yogurts Actually Healthy? What to Look For Before You Buy
You’re not imagining things. There’s an ever-growing collection of dairy-free yogurt options at the grocery store. As more people adopt a plant-based diet, the interest — and offerings — in non-dairy vegan yogurt and other plant-based products is expected to rise. But all dairy-free yogurt is not created equal and some are calorie bombs and full of saturated fat and loaded with added sugar. Some of them are about one-third sugar, or more than a quarter of your daily recommended value.
Whether you opt for coconut-based yogurt, cashew yogurt, almond yogurt, or you choose to go to the trouble to make your own recipe, there are several things to keep in mind when selecting the best dairy-free yogurt for the sake of your health.
First, a basic definition: “Dairy-free yogurts are those in which the product is created using a plant-based dairy product rather than that originating from cow's milk. The base may be oat milk, almond milk, cashew milk, soy milk, hemp milk, or other variety of plant-based dairy products,” says Shena Jaramillo, MS, RD, adding that these products may differ in taste and texture from traditional dairy-based yogurts. “Often, sugars are added to change the texture or make the yogurt taste more similar to a dairy-based product,” she explains, so look for added sugars on the label. “Choose the product with no added sugar or small amounts of added sugars,” she cautions.
Dairy-free flavored yogurts tend to be very high in added sugar “and would not be considered a healthy option,” but thought of as a treat, adds Kacie Barnes, RD, and founder of the blog mamaknowsnutrition.com.
Next, look at the caloric content since these products vary widely from one vegan yogurt to the next. “If you are consuming a soy yogurt, it will likely have more calories than that of an almond milk-based product,” Jaramillo says. Then check for added sodium as well, she adds.
Vegan Yogurt can be high in saturated fat
A big consideration when buying a plant-based or vegan yogurt is that coconut milk is high in saturated fat, known to drive up LDL cholesterol, the so-called bad cholesterol that can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, and blockages of the arteries.
If you are concerned with heart disease (and since half of all adults have it, we should all be), check the labels. One coconut-based yogurt can contain 6 grams of saturated fat, which is 30 percent of your entire daily recommended value, according to the USDA.
By contrast, a dairy-free yogurt made of almond milk has just .5 grams of saturated fat or 3 percent of your daily value. So depending on whether you are switching to non-dairy for the sake of avoiding saturated fat or some other reason, be aware that not all plant-based yogurts have the same healthy ingredients.
Should you eat dairy-free yogurt?
As long as you buy a product that isn’t a sugar bomb, plant-based yogurt can be a part of a healthy diet. “Yogurts can be an excellent, easy way to get some protein and carbohydrate in the morning. Typically, this helps with satiety, so you can more easily balance meals/snacks throughout the day,” Jaramillo says. “Many nutrient-dense items can also be added to yogurts, such as fruit and nuts, and it is convenient.”
Jaramillo also stresses that consumers should be aware that most plant-based yogurts will contain nuts or soy. “If someone is sensitive or allergic to these items, they should pay close attention to the labels,” she says.
What to look for in a dairy-free yogurt
Beyond what we’ve discussed above on the sugar and sodium front, there’s more to keep top of mind when buying dairy-free yogurt. While you may have to do a little research upfront and read nutrition facts panels for an extra second or two at the grocery store, it’s possible to find healthy vegan yogurt.
“There are healthier options, but you need to check the label. I like to look for low added sugar (10g or less, ideally), and some protein (at least 5g),” offers Barnes, noting that Siggi's coconut blend raspberry and vanilla & cinnamon flavors are a favorite of hers from both a nutrition and taste standpoint in the plant-based yogurt space, along with Nancy's Probiotic Oatmilk Vanilla.
“If they are high in sugar and don't have much protein, then I'd consider it a treat, and not a healthy snack or part of a healthy meal. Those that are high in sugar and low in protein have empty calories that won't keep you full.”
Here are the basic guidelines to consider when buying a dairy-free yogurt:
- Keep added sugars to a minimum: Elaborating on the above, Barnes stresses that she typically likes products with less than 6grams of added sugar per serving. “However, that's very hard to find with dairy-free yogurt that actually tastes good,” she says. “For dairy-free yogurt, I would aim for under 10g added sugar.”
- Look for probiotics: “Some dairy-free yogurts have probiotics, some don't. This is a benefit of traditional yogurt that helps with digestive health, that you will find in some dairy-free yogurts,” says Barnes. To learn more about probiotics, check out this article on probiotics.
- Scan the label for protein: Barnes suggests buying dairy-free yogurt that has at least 5g of protein, “so the yogurt is more satisfying and you don't need another snack in an hour.”
- Check the saturated fat content: If you are choosing dairy-free yogurt for the sake of avoiding animal fat, the saturated fat in coconut milk is just as harmful to your heart health so choose almond, oat or cashew-based yogurt instead.
- Add healthy ingredients: “If you find one that you like the taste of but doesn't have much protein, add something like hemp seeds or cashew butter to increase the protein content,” says Barnes. Also, instead of buying a fruit-flavored dairy-free yogurt, opt for plain vegan yogurt, and doctor it up at home with fresh or dried fruit, nuts, cinnamon, turmeric, etc. to make it tastier without worrying about added sugars or icky additives.
Bottom Line: Dairy-Free Yogurt Can Be Healthy If You Know What to Look For
Swapping out dairy yogurt for a dairy-free alternative like almond-based yogurt or cashew-based yogurt can be an easy, healthier way to eliminate animal products from your diet. Look for dairy-free yogurts with low saturated fat and try to keep added sugar to a minimum