Runner Beans

November 9, 2010

Is ACTIVIA Yogurt All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

Filed under: dairy, Informational — Tags: , , — Andrea @ 2:20 pm

Is ACTIVIA Yogurt All It’s Cracked Up To Be?


Sam and I are out of town for a few days, staying in a hotel and eating the complimentary hotel breakfast. I love yogurt and eat it almost every day, so yesterday morning I grabbed a container of ACTIVIA peach yogurt from the hotel buffet and ate it on top of melon chunks. As I ate the yogurt, I studied the container. My curiosity was piqued by the claim on the front of the package: “Helps Regulate Your Digestive System.” I remembered Rule #8 from Michael Pollan’s latest book, Food Rules : “Avoid Food Products That Make Health Claims.” Is this one of those health claims I should be wary of? I wondered. Time to do some sleuthing and figure out if ACTIVIA yogurt is all it’s cracked up to be.

Know Your Labels

I started by looking at the back label:
ACTIVIA Peach Yogurt (4 oz.)

  • Calories: 120
  • Total Fat: 2g (Sat Fat: 1g)
  • Sugars: 19g
  • Protein: 3g

A measly 4 oz. (½ cup) serving of this “healthy” yogurt contains 19 g (nearly 5 teaspoons) of sugar. Yikes! A quick look at the ingredients verifies the sugar content.

INGREDIENTS: Cultured Grade A Reduced Fat Milk, Sugar, Peaches, Fructose, Water, Modified Food Starch, Contains less than 1% of Milk Protein Concentrate, Modified Corn Starch, Natural Flavor, Kosher Gelatin, Annatto Extract and Black Carrot Juice Concentrate (For Color), Agar Agar [?], Lactic Acid, Carrageenan, Sodium Citrate, Xanthan Gum, Vitamin D2.

Not only are there two sources of sugar, but sugars are the second and fourth of the 18 ingredients. This sounds more like a dessert than a healthful breakfast component.

I couldn’t quite decipher the “Agar Agar” ingredient on my container because that part of the yogurt label was scrunched, so I looked up the peach yogurt nutrition facts on the ACTIVIA website. Interestingly enough, the nutrition facts and ingredients online were different than what appeared on my label.

Online nutrition facts for Activia Peach Yogurt (4 oz.): ­­­­­

  • Calories: 110
  • Total Fat: 2 g (Sat Fat: 1g)
  • Sugars: 17g
  • Protein: 5g

INGREDIENTS: Cultured Grade A Reduced Fat Milk, Peach Puree, Fructose, Sugar, Water, Contains less than 1% of Whey Protein Concentrate, Corn Starch, Modified Corn Starch, Kosher Gelatin, Natural Flavor, Annatto Extract and Black Carrot Juice Concentrate (For Color), Sodium Citrate, Malic Acid.

The online nutrition facts portray a slightly healthier yogurt (fewer calories, less sugar, more protein, fewer ingredients). Is ACTIVIA trying to make their product look healthier online? Or was this an honest mistake, perhaps an accidental posting of the nutrition facts of an older/newer yogurt formula? I don’t know the story behind the ACTIVIA nutrition facts, but there is one thing I do know: what I want in my yogurt.

Know Your Yogurt

In its most basic form, yogurt contains only two ingredients: milk and Live and Active Cultures. With the alarming rise of diabetes and obesity, you’re better off buying (or making) plain yogurt and sweetening it yourself with fresh fruit or a teaspoon of honey or jam instead of indulging in unnecessary sugar.

In addition to calcium and protein, one of the major health draws of yogurt is the Live and Active Cultures they contain. These good bacteria or probiotics help regulate the natural bacteria that line the digestive tract. Thus arises the premise of ACTIVIA’s health claim: their yogurt will help you stay regular.

The ACTIVIA peach yogurt contains three cultures: L. Bulgaricus, S. Thermophilus and Bifidobacterium Lactis DN 173-010. This is a good start, considering some yogurts contain no Live and Active cultures because they are heat-treated to prolong shelf life. Still, there are lower-sugar, more concentrated options for consuming Live and Active Cultures: ­­­­­­­­­­­the 365 Everyday Value Plain Yogurt at Whole Foods contains 6 Live and Active Cultures. And if you’re really gung-ho about Live and Active Cultures, try Kefir, a cultured yogurt drink with European roots. Lifeway Kefir contains 10 Live and Active Cultures.

It’s likely that Live and Active Cultures do have a positive effect on health (see here), but do you really need to consume Live and Active Cultures to stay regular?

Know Your Body

A better (and more immediate) solution for someone suffering from “slow intestinal transit” (as ACTIVIA calls it) is to eat more fiber: legumes, fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Considering a recent CDC study found that fewer than 1/3 of U.S. adults eat 2 servings of fruit and 3 servings of vegetables each day, it’s no wonder people are suffering from “slow intestinal transit.” And if people are missing out on fiber from fruits and vegetables, they may be missing out on other nutrients as well.

Furthermore, ACTIVIA’s scientific proof that their yogurt helps “slow intestinal transit” is hard to come by: I couldn’t find any scientific proof on their website, and a Slate article also calls into question the existence of ACTIVIA’s scientific proof.

So is ACTIVIA all it’s cracked up to be? I don’t think so. If you want to eat yogurt, go for plain yogurt and sweeten it yourself. If you want to incorporate Live and Active Cultures into your diet, find a yogurt with a higher concentration of these probiotics. If you’re concerned about “slow intestinal transit,” eat more fiber. By knowing what your body needs to function well—in this case, ample fiber and not too much sugar—you can tailor your diet to include whole, unprocessed foods that will leave you feeling energized and strong.

Want to learn more?
—  Learn from the Mayo Clinic which foods have high fiber contents
—  Learn about Live & Active Cultures from the National Yogurt Association
—  Learn about Lifeway Kefir

September 21, 2010

A Step-by-Step Pictorial Guide to Making Yogurt

Filed under: dairy, Recipes — Tags: , — Andrea @ 10:45 am

A Step-by-Step Pictorial Guide to Making Yogurt

In July I wrote a post called How to Make Yogurt Without a Yogurt Maker. Today I am expanding on that post by showing step-by-step how I make yogurt at home. Once you get the hang of making yogurt, it is very easy to work it into your daily routine. In fact, we enjoy this yogurt so much that I make it 2-3 times per week.

And yes, making yogurt at home is cheaper than buying ready-made yogurt. The milk I use—Organic Whole Milk—costs $5.99 per gallon. A gallon of milk makes 16 cups of yogurt, so that means each cup of yogurt costs only $0.37. Not bad!

If you’re wondering more about what type of milk to use or what type of starter, do look back at my first yogurt post to learn more.

First, choose your milk. I like to use whole milk because it makes a thick, creamy yogurt. You could use lower fat milk, but the yogurt may not be as thick and creamy.

Measure the milk. We're going to make four cups of yogurt, so we'll need four cups of milk.

Pour the milk into a heavy saucepan.

Turn the stove on to medium low.

Bring the milk to 180* F or until it just boils. Watch it closely and stir frequently because once milk begins to boil, it can overflow quickly.

Meanwhile, while the milk is heating, prepare an ice bath in the sink or other large container.

See the foam beginning to form? The milk has been pasteurized and is ready for the next step.

Carefully pour the hot milk back into the measuring cup.

Set the milk in the ice bath until the temperature of the milk cools to 110*F. Alternatively, you can skip the ice bath and simply let the milk cool on the counter.

While the milk is cooling, prepare your yogurt starter. Today I am using "Yo'gourmet," a freeze-dried yogurt starter. You could use 1/2 cup of plain yogurt as your starter if you don't want to buy the yogurt starter.

Cut open the yogurt culture packet and pour the powder into a small bowl. I like to use this 2-cup liquid measuring cup because it has a pour spout, which will come in handy later.

The hot milk has now cooled to 110*F. Time for the next step!

Pour about 1/2 cup of the warm milk into the measuring cup with the yogurt culture powder (or 1/2 cup of plain yogurt, if you're using yogurt as your starter).

Whisk well to dissolve the powder.

Pour the warm-milk-yogurt-culture-starter mixture into the main measuring cup with the rest of the warm milk (see! the spouts come in very handy with all this pouring back and forth.)

Whisk well.

Choose the bowl or crock in which you will incubate (grow) your yogurt. I like to use this insert to our mini crock pot.

Pour the milk mixture into the bowl or crock. Don't use a metal pot because it will impart a metallic taste to the yogurt.

Prepare your incubation area. Ideally, the milk will be kept at 100*F for 4-8 hours. Since our house is cool and I don't have a yogurt maker, I wrap the crock of yogurt in a heating pad turned on low and a bath towel.

Once you wrap the crock and turn the heating pad on low, don't disturb it for at least 4 hours. After 4 hours, you can peek and see if you want to leave your yogurt longer. I like to incubate my yogurt for 6 hours---it is thick and slightly tart. Incubation time will vary depending on your yogurt starter and heat source. Experiment and you'll soon discover how long to incubate your yogurt.

And here you have delicious, homemade yogurt. Cheers!

August 17, 2010

Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream (made with real mint leaves!)

Filed under: dairy, dessert, Recipes — Tags: , — Andrea @ 4:18 pm

Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream (made with real mint leaves!)

Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream“When the mint plant grows enough leaves.” That was the mark we gave ourselves, our timeline for making mint chocolate chip ice cream from scratch. We needed two cups of packed mint leaves, and it was only a matter of time before our quart-sized mint plant would realize it’s latent strength and push out lush green leaves, Jack-and-the-Beanstock style. We repotted the mint into a planter box and watered it occasionally (neglected it more often). Still, the mint leaves grew.

When we could harvest 2 cups of mint leaves without entirely disrobing the plant of its life-giving leaves, we set out to make our long-awaited mint chocolate chip ice cream. I should tell you now that for the past year Sam’s and my favorite ice cream has been mint chocolate chip—Strauss Family Creamery Mint Chocolate Chip to be exact. It’s a dangerous thing to try to replicate something one prizes; disappointment is almost certain to rear its head in one form or another. Nonetheless, we like mint chocolate chip ice cream so that is what we set out to make.

I used David Lebovitz’ Mint Chip Ice Cream recipe, which is unique because it uses mint leaves instead of mint extract. After harvesting 2 cups of packed mint leaves, I boiled them in a mixture of milk and sugar and let it steep for an hour. The mint leaves imparted their bright green color to the milk, but it was not to remain: the mint-milk became a muted, dull green when I whisked in the hot, yellow egg yolk-and-cream mixture. Neither crisp white nor bright green, I began to suspect that this ice cream would not taste like our favorite Strauss ice cream; no, this was an ice cream all its own.

After chilling the ice cream base overnight, I poured it into our Donvier hand-crank ice cream maker. I confess I was a little disappointed to sample the ice cream and discover how much it tasted like mint leaves. Of course. All commercial ice creams use mint extract to make their ice creams, not mint leaves. C’est la vie.

When the ice cream had frozen sufficiently in the maker, it was time to prepare the stracciatella-style chocolate chips. Melting a few bars of Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Lover’s bar, I took a spoon, scooped up some melted chocolate and drizzled it on the bottom of a bowl. Next came a layer of mint ice cream, then another drizzle of chocolate. The chocolate froze upon contact with the ice cream base, creating strands of chocolate throughout the ice cream. Every few layers I stirred the ice cream to incorporate the chocolate strands. Then I tucked the bowl into the freezer to fully harden.

This homemade mint chip ice cream wasn’t Strauss ice cream, and it got mixed reviews. In the words of my dad, it tasted like chlorophyll. To my mom, however, it tasted like real mint, not like toothpaste. Sam really didn’t care for it; but once I got over the fact that comparing this ice cream to Strauss was like comparing apples and oranges, I grew to like the fresh mint flavor and prefer the stracciatella-style crunch of the chocolate even more than the Strauss mini chips. I probably won’t make this recipe again—harvesting the mint leaves and making the mint tea was a lot of work—but I’m glad to have tried it. I learned how to make delicious stracciatella-style chocolate chips and that in ice cream, I prefer the flavor of mint extract to real mint leaves. For me, cooking is all about learning and trying new things, and on that score, I’d say this recipe was a success.

August 10, 2010

Adventures in Cheese Making: Monterey Jack

Filed under: dairy, Informational, Personal Essays, Recipes — Tags: , — Andrea @ 5:40 pm

Adventures in Cheese Making: Monterey Jack

Jack cheese

Yesterday my mom and I embarked on an adventure in cheese making. With the Hard Cheese Kit from Ricki Carroll of the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, we set out to make our own Monterey Jack cheese.

The hard cheese making kit costs about $30 and includes the cultures to make Gouda, Parmesan, Feta, Colby, Monterey Jack, Farmhouse Cheddar, Cottage Cheese and Ricotta. The kit also includes a thermometer, cheese mold, cheesecloth and chemicals and cultures necessary for cheese making (rennet, calcium chloride, thermophilic and mesophilic cultures). The cheese kit does not contain cheese wax, which is necessary if you want to age your cheese—and since most hard cheese get better as they age, chance are you’ll want to wax your cheese. If you order the hard cheese kit online, order the wax at the same time because shipping costs are pretty hefty for ordering only the cheese wax.

In its simplest form, cheese is made by heating milk to specific temperatures, adding a culture and rennet, sustaining specific temperatures, draining and pressing.  Depending on which cheese you make, it can take anywhere from 1-6 hours. Cheese making requires frequent monitoring, so it is good to have a large chunk of time available.

My mom and I ran across many challenges in making our Monterey Jack cheese, and it took all the optimism we could muster to see it to the end. Setting aside our ideals of perfection and putting on light-hearted attitudes, we made a cheese that wasn’t quite perfect but tasted like authentic Jack cheese. Most of all, though, my mom and I got to do what we love best: try something new together and have fun in the process.

Cheese Making Kit

July 29, 2010

How to Make Yogurt Without a Yogurt Maker

Filed under: dairy, Informational, Recipes — Tags: — Andrea @ 9:28 pm

How to Make Yogurt Without a Yogurt Maker

Homemade Yogurt

Did you know you can make yogurt at home? You don’t even need any fancy equipment like an electric yogurt maker. For hundreds of years people all throughout the world have been making yogurt using only milk, a little yogurt from a previous batch, a warm environment and some time.

Making yogurt is similar to making sourdough bread: sourdough bread requires a “starter” or piece of fermenting dough that causes the dough to rise and gives the bread its characteristic flavor. In the same way, yogurt requires a starter. This starter contains the healthy bacteria that help turn the milk into yogurt. Here’s the cool part: you can use any plain yogurt with live and active cultures as a starter. At first you’ll need to use a store-bought yogurt as your starter, but once you begin making your own yogurt, you can reserve a little to use as your starter next time.

In a nutshell, yogurt is made by (1) heating the milk to boiling point (2) letting the hot milk cool till it is warm (3) adding the starter (4) incubating the milk mixture for 4-8 hours to let the yogurt “grow.”

Why go to the trouble of making yogurt at home?

  1. It tastes better! It has a delightful freshness I have never tasted in store-bought yogurt.
  2. There are no preservatives or unnecessary ingredients.
  3. You can control the amount of sugar in the yogurt.
  4. Making yogurt is less expensive than buying yogurt.
  5. Making yogurt is fun!

Yogurt making is fun because you can experiment with the variables to make your yogurt taste just the way you like it. In this sense, it’s like making wine or bread—but a whole lot easier.

Yogurt variables include:

  1. Type of milk used (skim, 2%, whole; organic, non-organic)
  2. Type of starter used (fresh yogurt v. freeze-dried; number of cultures in starter)
  3. Incubation Environment (electric yogurt maker, warm oven, heating pad, thermos, blankets)
  4. Incubation Time (4 hours v. 8 hours)

Don’t let the yogurt-making variables deter you from trying to make your own yogurt. Yogurt making can be as simple or complex as you want it to be, and you’ll soon learn what ingredients and methods suit your taste. Take heart: even though I used slightly different ingredients or methods each of the five times I made yogurt in the past few weeks, they all turned out well (except the one time I killed the bacterial cultures because I forgot to let the milk cool first—that was purely my blunder though).

Ready to make some yogurt?

Homemade Yogurt

Makes 1 quart of yogurt

1 quart milk (I use whole milk)
½ cup plain yogurt or 1 (5g) packet of freeze-dried yogurt starter, such as Yo’Gourmet
A thermometer
A warm environment to incubate the yogurt

  1. In a saucepan over medium heat, heat the milk to 180°F (82°C) or until it begins to boil, stirring as necessary.
  2. Let the milk cool to 110°F (43°C). You can either let the milk sit in the saucepan until it cools or place the saucepan of milk in a sink filled with cold water to expedite the cooling process.
  3. In a small bowl, combine the plain yogurt or yogurt starter with about ½ cup of the lukewarm milk. Stir to fully incorporate, then pour the contents back into the saucepan. Stir well.
  4. Prepare a warm place (ideally 100°F) to incubate the yogurt. A warm oven works well. Place a lid on the saucepan or container in which you are incubating the yogurt. If you are concerned about maintaining a warm temperature, wrap the container well with towels or blankets. You can also place a heating pad underneath the yogurt to help it stay warm (be wise about this! We don’t want any house fires). If you have a crockpot, read this post to learn about using it as an incubator.
  5. Incubate the yogurt mixture for 6-8 hours (4-4 ½ hours if you are using Yo’Gourmet). Do not touch or stir the yogurt while it is incubating. Don’t stress about the timing; experiment and you’ll figure out what you like.
  6. Refrigerate the yogurt to stop the incubation process. Enjoy!

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