The main issue in the production of yoghurt is the welfare of the animals producing the milk. Conditions can vary dramatically from farm to farm, and it is often difficult to tell from the labelling whether a product is derived from intensively-reared cattle. The safest and most ethical option is to choose Soil Association approved brands, or goat and sheep yoghurts, which are also likely to include fewer additives than the mainstream varieties.
The case for organic
Intensive farming of dairy cattle is fraught with animal welfare problems. Cattle can be kept in confined spaces, often being left indoors for long periods of time. The close proximity of the animals means that diseases are rife, so the cattle are regularly treated with antibiotics, even as a precautionary measure. While growth hormones such as rBST are not legal in the UK, other procedures are used to make the cattle produce higher milk yields. This includes using concentrated feeds, which can have an effect on the animals’ health, and put unnecessary stress on their bodies.
Organic-standard yoghurt is not only better for people but better for the milk-producing cow. According to the Soil Association, calves on organic farms will have been suckled for around nine weeks, rather than separated from their mothers within a few days, and the disease rates of animals are lower because of better husbandry and a diet of mostly grass and clover. Their health is managed without reliance on antibiotics, using conventional drugs only when a problem is acute. Organic cows are not kept permanently shut up indoors throughout the winter as non-organic herds often are.
Goat and sheep yoghurt also comes from less intensive conditions as it is produced by smaller companies; it is also important for the 10 per cent of the population who are lactose intolerant.
Live yoghurts contain two species of bacteria naturally found in the human gut which can, unlike ordinary yoghurt bacteria, pass via the stomach into the intestines, with the claimed benefits of improving digestion and helping to prevent colon cancer. Many yoghurts labelled as ‘prebiotics’ and ‘probiotics’ are marketed on the premise that they are good for the immune system. In fact, for people who are already fit, the benefits are probably marginal, but live yoghurt is almost certainly very beneficial for people who are recovering from a stomach bug or who are taking antibiotics.
Vegetarian and vegan
Gelatine, a product of animal bones, may be added to thicken reduced-fat yoghurts and so vegetarians should keep a careful eye on the ingredients list.
Most non-dairy yoghurts are made from soya and as such will be highly processed and may contain salt, sugar and other additives, but they contain the same bacterial cultures as conventional yoghurt. As some soya is from GM sources, you may be best advised to look for organic products or those labelled as non-GM.
Nestlé was criticised by the Advertising Standards Authority in July 2006 for marketing its Ski yoghurt with the slogan ‘keep it simple – no artificial colour, sweetener or preservative’, when the product actually contained synthetic additives. The magazine advert was withdrawn after the ASA ruled that it had misled the public.
Labels such as ‘low sugar’ or ‘lite’ on yoghurts can also be misleading, as there is no fixed legislation to define what they mean. In extreme cases, a low sugar variety of one brand may have the same amount of sugar as the regular version of another.
To know exactly what is in your yoghurt, make your own by buying a pot of live yoghurt, adding milk and leaving it in a warm place. It works equally well for soya yoghurts. The system can go on almost indefinitely, but consult a reliable recipe book for useful tips about storage and hygiene.
Ethical Yoghurt Rankings Detailed Table
Buy our detailed Ethical Research Reports. See the findings behind companies’ ethical ratings, as featured in The Good Shopping Guide. Several different product sectors available covering hundreds of consumer brands.
We have created ethical rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Woodlands Park, Yeo Valley, Provamel, Sojasun, Total, Rachel’s Dairy, Onken, Weight Watchers, Muller, Danone, Actimel, Ski.
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