Yogurt: The quintessential 'health food'

Posted: Friday, April 27, 2007

Many people think of yogurt as the quintessential "health food." With its sour, tangy flavor, it is definitely an acquired taste. I remember the first few times I ate yogurt wondering whether I liked it or not. I am glad I gave it a chance, because it has become one of my favorite foods and now I eat some almost every day.

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Yogurt or something like it has been eaten for more than 3,000 years. It originated in the Middle East and spread from there east into Asia and west into Europe. The first yogurt was probably discovered by accident, the result of spontaneous fermentation of warm milk by wild bacteria. The fermentation process converts the lactose in milk into lactic acid. This is beneficial in a number of ways.

First, it makes the milk more acidic, which prevents pathogenic bacteria from growing in it. This was especially helpful in the days before refrigeration because milk fermented this way keeps much longer. Second, it makes milk easier to digest. Fermentation breaks down lactose, which is the part of milk which humans have the hardest time digesting. Indeed, some people who are lactose intolerant can eat yogurt without ill effect.

Additionally, yogurt contains strains of bacteria that are extremely beneficial. The best known of these so-called "friendly" bacteria is L.acidophilus, but there are others as well. These bacteria are vital for the proper digestion of food and assimilation of nutrients, and for maintaining a healthy environment in the intestinal tract.

Yogurt can be made from any kind of milk, and you can find it made from sheep's milk, goat's milk, and even water buffalo milk, in addition to cow's milk. It also comes in different textures. The latest thing to hit the dairy case is Greek style yogurt. This yogurt is strained to allow the water and whey to drain out. The result is a firmer texture and creamier mouth feel. Even the low-fat version tastes rich and decadent.

While yogurt is often sweetened or has fruit preserves added to counteract its natural sourness, I prefer it in its tangy unsweetened state. This is the healthiest way to eat it too, both because it has less sugar, and because plain yogurts tend to have more viable friendly bacteria.

In addition to eating it by itself, yogurt has numerous culinary uses. It can be used as an ingredient in salad dressings, dips and sauces. It is great blended with fresh or frozen fruit in smoothie drinks. Many people use it as a low fat substitute for sour cream. And at our house, vast quantities are consumed mixed with blueberry or hemp granola.

Here is a recipe for a heavenly salad featuring yogurt, cucumber and fresh mint:

Shredded cucumbers in mint-flavored yogurt

2 medium-sized cucumbers

½ tablespoon salt

1½ cups plain yogurt

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint

1 teaspoon grated lemon or lime zest

2 tablespoons sesame or avocado oil

1 teaspoon black mustard seeds

Peel and coarsely shred the cucumbers, then place in a bowl. Sprinkle with salt and toss. Let sit at room temperature for 20-30 minutes. Strain, then pat dry with paper towels.

Place yogurt, cayenne and mint in a bowl and whisk with a fork until smooth and creamy. Stir in the cucumbers. Heat the oil over moderate heat in a small pan. When it is hot but not smoking, add the mustard seeds. Fry until the seeds sputter and turn gray. Pour the fried seeds and oil into the cucumber-yogurt mixture, and stir to blend. Refrigerate for 1-2 hours to allow the mint and seasoning to release their flavors. Serves 5 or 6.

Recipe from "Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking" by Yamuna Devi.

• David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and has bought, sold and written about food and health for 20 years.

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