Exploring the Wide World of Plant-Based Yogurts
The most common types, how they taste, and more
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Walking through the grocery store always leaves me feeling a bit overwhelmed and spoilt for choice—there are so many options for pretty much every type of product—and while yogurt has always taken up a large section with tons of flavors, there seems to be a new “type” of plant-based, dairy-free, or vegan yogurt in the display case every time I’m there.
What are these vegan yogurts really made of? How do they compare to the “real” thing, and do they work as one to one substitutes in recipes? How do they taste, and are they better for the environment than dairy yogurts? These are the questions we’re going to attempt to answer here, so get your granola and get ready to dive into the world of plant-based yogurts.
A (very) brief history of plant-based yogurt’s popularity
For a long time, plant-based products as a whole were quite niche in the global food industry––if they even existed in your market, they were probably hard to find. This has certainly changed in North America and Europe, with the global market for dairy-free alternatives making a huge impact and reaching $17.3 billion in 2018—though it’s important to note that the market for dairy worldwide was $673.8 billion in the same year. While the exact reasons for this fast growth (a 39% increase for plant-based yogurts alone in the US between 2018 and 2019) are difficult to pinpoint, many credit the growing interest in vegetarian and vegan diets, the perception that plant-based dairy product substitutes are healthier than standard dairy products, and of course many consumers’ wishes to use their diet and purchases to back up their own stances on issues like sustainability.
Even with the market increasing year after year for these products, the question remains: Are these plant-based products, especially yogurt, actually healthier and more sustainable?
Made with soy milk, soy yogurt is one of the classic dairy-free alternatives for yogurt. It has a long history, stretching back to the 1900s, but seems to have been first introduced on the market as an alternative for yogurt in 1977. To make soy yogurt, soy milk and a starter culture are mixed and sugar is added to promote bacterial fermentation and turn the soy milk into yogurt–the same process used to make dairy yogurt.
Soy yogurt has a mild taste, with a more or less pronounced bean-y flavor depending on the freshness of the milk used to make it. It typically does not taste as pleasantly tangy as dairy yogurt, but can of course be sweetened and flavored just the same. Compared to dairy yogurts, soy yogurt has nearly the same amount of protein, but delivers very little, if any, calcium. They also tend to include lots of different thickeners or additives—unwanted additions that you can watch out for in the ingredient list. Some studies suggest that soy can help lower the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
When it comes to sustainability, soy is a hotly debated topic, with many criticizing the industry for callous deforestation. Still, it’s clear that eating soy is vastly better for the environment than eating meat.
Made from coconut milk and probiotics, with added thickeners like agar-agar or tapioca, coconut yogurt is one my personal favorite non-dairy yogurts on the market. They’re usually quite low in sugars, but also, to their detriment, low in protein. Many brands have been able to strike a balance between the inherent (and in my opinion, delicious) coconut flavor and the tangy, slightly sour yogurt flavor, but the textures can vary widely between brands, from watery to gloopy depending on what types of thickeners they use.
On the sustainability front, coconuts are often referred to in mainstream media as being a fairly sustainable crop with a low environmental impact. While this could be true, as with the sustainability of many products in the food industry, it’s still a difficult question to answer–it’s not black and white. For one, most coconuts are grown in South and Southeast Asia, requiring a long transport to reach grocery store shelves.
When talking about nut-based yogurts, almond yogurt is the typical choice. Almond yogurts start like the other yogurts mentioned here, with almond milk, bacteria, and, more often than not, added sugars to promote bacteria growth and fermentation. Unfortunately for us, almond milk is not nearly as nutritious as cow’s milk, and the yogurts made from it are practically protein- and calcium-less, unless otherwise fortified, and are usually packed with sugar–leaning towards dessert rather than a healthy breakfast. It does offer pleasant, mildly nutty flavors, but can often be quite watery in texture.
In terms of sustainability, almonds are now widely known to use an extremely ridiculous amount of water–about 1,611 gallons (6,098 liters) is needed to produce just ¼ gallon or 4 cups (1 liter) of almond milk. Given that 80% of the world’s almonds are coming from drought-stricken California, and that there are people (mainly two, Stewart and Lynda Resnick) making billions of dollars by essentially stealing what water there is, I think it’s clear that almond yogurt is not a sustainable option in comparison to the other choices we have today.
The newest plant-based milk on the market is oat milk, and it’s been enjoying a sky-rocketing rise in popularity thanks to brands like Oatly, so it only makes sense that oat yogurt swiftly hit the market and is likely to follow suit. Not to be repetitive here, but oat yogurt is, as the yogurts that came before it, made from oat milk and a starter culture or probiotics, often supplemented with sugar and thickeners. Lactose- and gluten-free, oat yogurts are similar to the other plant-based yogurts in the fact that they are not naturally great sources of protein or calcium, but they have one thing other yogurts do not: They are, like oats themselves, a good source of fiber.
Oat milk is by far a personal favorite of all the plant-based milks for its creamy texture and subtly sweet, oat flavor, so I expected oat yogurt to taste this way as well. My expectations were met, and it can be confirmed that oat yogurt is creamy, smooth, and on par with dairy yogurts, although it’s hard to find any plain oat yogurts, with most options being flavored and sweetened, and therefore higher in calories than other options.
According to the BBC’s environmental impact calculator, oat milk is the most sustainable plant-based milk–therefore oat yogurt can’t be that much different. Since oat yogurt is quite new to the market (with the American yogurt giant, Chobani, launching their oat line–including yogurts–in January 2020), there isn’t a lot of information about it specifically, so using oat milk as a proxy seems to be the best way to measure it’s sustainability, which seems to be rated better than both almond and soy milk when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions at the very least.
Less common plant-based yogurts
In addition to the more common, popular, alternative yogurts described above, there are many other plant-based yogurts on the market already, and there are sure to be plenty of new contenders here as time goes on. From flax yogurt or lupine yogurts, to yogurts made with plantains, peas, or hemp–if there’s a “milk” made from it, there’s probably going to be a yogurt made with that milk.
How to eat and use plant-based yogurt
In just about every case, a plain, unsweetened non-dairy yogurt can be swapped in for a dairy yogurt. Use it as a 1:1 substitute for sour cream or yogurt in sweet or savory recipes and baked goods. You can also use it as a 1:1 substitute for cream cheese as long as you also reduce additional liquids in the recipes by about 1 tablespoon per half cup.
How to make plant-based yogurt at home
Making plant-based, non-dairy yogurt at home is just about the same as making a dairy yogurt at home. Here’s how to do it:
Homemade non-dairy yogurt
- 01:30 min.
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Use the same method and recipe as above with your own homemade soy milk, or swap it out with homemade oat or almond milk:
What’s been your experience with plant-based, non-dairy yogurts and which are your favorites? Let us know in the comments below!
Published on June 20, 2020