Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  And It Don't Stop
  Book Reports
  Is It Still Good to Ya?
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Xgau Sez
  And It Don't Stop
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Rolling Stone
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
Web Site:
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
CG Search:
Google Search:

The Loving Spoonful:
A Consumer Guide to America's Yogurts

by Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

Yogurt is a dairy product of ancient origin. Europeans have known about it for years. Many of them consider it healthful, not because something that tastes so bad must be good for you, but because lactic acid--which yogurt bacteria ferment from milk sugar--inhibits disease-causing germs. Americans didn't discover the sour-cream-like stuff until the mid-1950s, when the Dannon company (an offshoot of Danone in France) began slipping fruit preserves under individual portions and launched an intelligent ad campaign. Dannon's fruit supplement changed yogurt from an oddity to a novelty. The next innovation was Swiss style, which satisfied the American taste for the sweet and the ready-made by mixing the fruit and sugar right in. By now, yogurt qualifies as junk food--sweet, convenient, cheap, and habit-forming. Sales were over $100 million last year. One factor in yogurt's growing popularity is its substantial--although unsubstantiated--reputation as a weight-loss aid. Most Americans eat it with preserves, which brings the calorie count up from 130 for the plain product to 270 calories per eight-ounce serving. This is higher than the same size serving of ice cream, but lower than pie. Of course, yogurt's peculiar digestive properties may make it dietetic, but that's only conjecture. Another aid to yogurt sales has been the "natural foods" movement, despite the fact that most flavored yogurt contains additives--stabilizers to keep it firm, preservatives to hold off yeast and mold, and artificial coloring and flavoring to save money. All of these are listed as G.R.A.S. (generally regarded as safe) by the Food and Drug Administration, but then the FDA is always changing that list. We eat yogurt because we think it tastes good, and when we drove cross-country last summer, we decided to put our passion to the test. We sampled about 60 brands, tasting several flavors from most, to arrive at an evaluation of 37 representative brands. This method had its difficulties. Because yogurt doesn't keep forever, we had to compare by memory and compensate for context (a great yogurt in San Antonio tastes more extraordinary than a great yogurt in San Diego, because you don't expect to find great yogurt in San Antonio). Our first conclusion is that the reason 60 percent of all yogurt is sold in the Northeast and on the Pacific coast is because mid-American dairies make lousy yogurt. Virtually the only good Midwestern yogurts we found were privately made. Second, price tends to vary with quality, but not absolutely. It is possible to get excellent yogurt cheap, and some expensive brands (including health-food-store stuff) are bad. Overleaf, the results of our quest, listed alphabetically rather than by rating. Yogurts are rated from A for absolutely great to E for execrable.

Anderson and Erickson (Des Moines, Iowa) Contains potassium sorbate (a common yogurt preservative), which is OK as long as you're not allergic. The FDA might decertify the "artificial coloring and flavoring" tomorrow, for all you know. For A & E cherry vanilla, which goes down like cannoli, we'll endure it all. The other flavors aren't worth it. The blueberry (a fruit hard to preserve or imitate) is downright puky. C

A&P Look-fit (New York, New York) This is your low-average high-additive Swiss-style yogurt--a gelatinous hunk, with flavors from funny (peach, Dutch apple) to inedible (strawberry, plain). D PLUS

Astro (Toronto, Canada) The other kind of yogurt. You get it in health-food stores in the Toronto area. Nothing is added, but the fermentation is controlled so that some natural sweetness from the milk sugar gets past the lactic-acid test. A

Berkeley Farms (Oakland, California) This additive-free local brand is inoffensive but forgettable. Comes in the expected fruit flavors. Too sweet. B MINUS

Borden (Columbus, Ohio) One of the imitators of Swiss-style yogurt, which does require stabilizers--starch, gelatin, gum, or carrageenin--to keep the fruit in place. It usually gets a funny taste. Borden's funny taste is like cardboard. D PLUS

Breakstone (South Edmeston, New York) Breakstone succeeds at blueberry--in its All Natural line--with plump, whole berries in an ungummy preserve. The All Natural raspberry is tart and seedy, the strawberry immemorable, the vanilla overflavored, and the plain smooth but nondescript. The sticky-sweet Swiss Parfait line has additives, costs more. B

Carnation (Los Angeles, California) A good yogurt with adequate flavors put in sundae style at the bottom. Stabilizers, artificial color, etc. but no preservatives and no aftertaste. B

Colombo (Methuen, Massachusetts) After 40 years of small-timing, Colombo is cutting corners to try to get Dannon's market in a hurry. Too bad, because it could be the best yogurt in the East. Its whole-milk formula beats every contender in the country except the higher-priced Continental. Its fruit flavors are sumptuous, and even its novelty line (shocking-pink peach melba, lemon custard with egg, lavender cold duck) tastes good. But the new supermarket quantities show inconsistent product control and the flavors are artificially spiked. It's not impossible to avoid additives--just expensive--and Colombo wants to remain competitive. The blueberry, with its dusky blue color, generous strewings of berries, and creamy consistency is the best in America, as is the all-natural honey vanilla. When they make it right, even the wheat germ and honey is better than you can mix yourself. A MINUS

Continental (Glendale, California) The yogurt with hubris. It could be too rich. At seven percent, the butterfat content is well over the one-and-one-half percent of ordinary low fat, or even whole milk's four percent. But it could be the best-tasting plain and certainly is the most unusual yogurt with any real distribution. The honey-sweetened sundae-style flavors are subtle and close to those of the real fruit--though the raspberry is thin and overly tart and the pineapple is bubble-gummy. Strawberry, apricot, and pear are our favorites. The low-fat Bulgarian line is not special, and the Goat's Milk yogurt made us gag, but Royal Continental is worth seeking out, in the ubiquitous California health-food emporiums (at about 40 cents/8 oz.) and in big Eastern cities, where it's expensive. A

Crescent (Montreal, Quebec) Dannon's recipe with whole milk. It takes remarkably like Continental, only it isn't quite as well rounded and the fruit is mushy. B PLUS

Dannon (Minister, Ohio) In making lactic acid yummy, Dannon has done more than any other to promote yogurt in America, has never used an artificial ingredient--even when nobody cared. The plain is so conscientiously controlled that it comes short on character, but its function is really to mix with the carefully preserved choice fruit underneath. Dannon is wholesome rather than mind-blowing. It's good with tricky yogurt fruits like cherry and peach (though not blueberry) and some of its flavors are the best. Try the fluffy pineapple-orange, with shreds of marmalady peel, or tart apricot, made from frozen fruit to avoid the sulphur used in drying. Our favorite is Dutch apple, in with the lightly spiced tender apple chunks go with mellow yogurt like apple pie with ice cream. Number one in the United States east of the Mississippi. A MINUS

Dean's (Chemung, Illinois) Crummy for the money (40 cents/8 oz.) with a surface like the moon--cratered. Blueberry as weird as usual. Dark, viscous cherry. Strawberry tastes like a lollipop, the plain is so sour it made our eyes water, and all of them are loaded with G.R.A.S. helpers. D

Delisle (Boucherville, Quebec) French Swiss-style yogurt doesn't use stabilizers, and maybe that's why Delisle has the consistency of soup and tastes chalky. Still, the over-all effect is fresh, with large pieces of fruit. Delisle coffee is the best we've come across--subtle and light textured. B

Dr. Gaymont's (Chicago, Illinois) A tolerable basic formula (thick) but a cheesy aftertaste (parmesan). Candy-style strawberry, spoiled blueberry, and black cherry that's like marzipan, which is at least a novelty. Sells big in North Central States and is the only American brand to spell it yogourt. C MINUS

Eudokia's Ya-our-ty (Des Plaines, Illinois) Variations on this yogurt--by no means identical but just as unique--are probably made at small Balkan and Middle Eastern restaurants and food suppliers all over the country. This one, available in the Chicago area, has curds, tastes mild as light cream, and goes with salt and pepper. A MINUS

Erivan (Oreland, Pennsylvania) A whole-milk yogurt available in some Northeastern health-food stores (at 63 cents/7 oz.). Freshness is the main attraction, as it has no special flavor. B PLUS

Gandy's (San Angelo, Texas) A lot of brands outside the big yogurt markets are really awful. We ate this in Big Bend, Texas, and it wasn't awful. Despite the ingredients listing on the label, the plain tastes like it has sugar in it. The lemon (a good bet in bad brands because it doesn't cost much to make) is all right. C MINUS

Hawthorne Mellody (Chicago, Illinois) Why do they bother? E

Hollywood (Detroit, Michigan) One of the worst yogurts in America. Smells like fresh chemicals, and the blueberry looks like extract of used typewriter ribbon. Cheap and gummy. E

Hood (Boston, Massachusetts) Dannon's New England competition buys artificial flavoring instead of fruit, and stabilizers instead of quality. Why no preservatives? Nothing to preserve. D PLUS

Jerseymaid (Los Angeles, California) Twenty-three cents is a good buy for good yogurt, even in California, where it tends to run cheap. Jerseymaid plain is clean and rich. It has pizazz--but not too much pizazz. The preserves are like fresh fruit--but in a pie, not off the bush--mushy yet flavorful. They also do chocolate fudge (a flavor that tastes the same--a little weird--no matter who makes it) and ice-pop lime. B PLUS

Johnston's (Glendale, California) Strawberry is America's favorite kind of yogurt. Johnston's, a corporate relative of Dannon with a different style, does it all three ways: (1) Fruit Fondae (Swiss style), which is light pink, too sweet, and has the consistency of baby's tapioca; (2) Sundae Style, which (like the Fondae) includes stabilizers and sorbic acid--"practically non-toxic," according to Ruth Winter's Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives--is smarter tasting but nothing special, with a good, smooth, plain base; and (2) All Natural--substituting honey for sugar, sundae style, for a nickel more--delicate, fragrant, with succulent firm berries; one of the most remarkable examples of any flavor in any brand. B PLUS

Knudsen (Los Angeles, California) The big California dairy (unrelated to the New England Knudsen) makes the biggest-selling yogurt on the West Coast. The plain is exceptionally thick and substantial, although one went gamy soon (refrigerated yogurt should keep for at least a week). Some of the flavors are artificially bolstered, and all are stabilized and colored. None of them are exceptional. They include a vanilla that tastes like banana; a banana that tastes like wax; a good, gunky, spiced apple; a smooth, junkety, fruit-at-bottom strawberry; and a too-sweet, Swiss-style strawberry with little gritty things. Buy the plain. B PLUS

Lacto (New York, New York) This is an old family company that makes roughly the third-best yogurt you can buy in East Coast supermarkets. It's sourer and thicker than Dannon's and available in quarts for 89 cents, but it's unpredictable and known to go bad fast. The all-natural line demonstrates that additives aren't the only way to hurt fruit flavoring--you can overcook, oversweeten, and underspend on ingredients. B

Lucerne (Oakland, California) The people who say good yogurt must be sour--and we're among them--do not mean this exploitation from Safeway Stores. Its viscosity comes not from fermentation but from gelatin, starch, vegetable gum, carrageenin, and lecithin. Boycott. C MINUS

Maola Trim (New Bern, North Carolina) Another boondocks bummer. The peach is a complete disaster. D

Meadow Gold Viva (Chicago, Illinois) One of the worst. The aftertaste penetrated its most lurid flavors, and the boysenberry was gray. E

Nancy's (Springfield, Oregon) This health-food yogurt has preserves (in a separate plastic cup on top) had honey mixed into the plain, which is rich and heavy in texture but disappointingly bland. The sugarless preserves taste like good canned fruit. Good canned fruit? B PLUS

Nordica (Albuquerque, New Mexico) This was the worst. We could not eat two bites of the bitter boysenberry or the astringent, rotten plain. E MINUS

Ralph's (Los Angeles, California) The best supermarket yogurt. Although most of the flavors were not special, you could spill the tart, cheesecaky orange into a sherbert glass and call it desert. It's available in quarts like Knudsen's. The plain ranks with Knudsen's. In fact, one informant insists that it's made by Knudsen. Accusation denied. B PLUS

Sealtest Light 'n' Lively (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) Na´ve interpretations of flavor plus Sealtest's distribution makes this one of the three top-selling yogurts in the East. Gelatin, usually used as an unsuccessful short cut to body, is handled deftly enough; its fine granularity stops short of chalkiness; and the small stains of U.S.-certified color have leaked off chunks, rather than shreds, of fruit. Much like baby food. C

Sugar-Lo (Atlantic City, New Jersey) This is grade A milk (partially skimmed), yogurt culture, choice blueberries, water, certified food coloring, vegetable stabilizers, natural and artificial flavors, less than one tenth of one percent sodium benzoate as a preservative, and .012 percent calcium saccharine per eight ounces. Result: 118 calories, 14.61 grams carbohydrate, 9.49 grams protein, and 2.27 grams fat. E

Superbrand (Jacksonville, Florida) A big supermarket brand from the South. The peach tasted like ether. D

George Szanto's Home-Made Little Balkan Yogurt Maker Yogurt (Laramie, Wyoming) They say the best yogurt is the yogurt you make yourself, but that's not as easy as it sounds. In Laramie, however, there are no reasonable alternatives. George's first batch melted in our mouths, something like snow. The second had some rough residue and was too sour. But it was fresh, and it sure beat Meadow Gold Viva. B

White Cloud (Los Angeles, California) This is an overrated gourmet health-food brand. Good body, bad aftertaste--twice. B MINUS

Yami (Oakland, California) We tried Yami in lots of places--even as far east as Ontario--and it never justified its reputation, despite the fact that its cultures come from the Roselle Bacteriological Institute in Quebec--one of the first sources of yogurt in North America. Texture is usually OK, except in the plain. The royal natural was hard as the white of hard-boiled egg. C

Yonson (Fullerton, California) Plain Yonson, though creamy, has a funny, oldish taste. The lime has citrus shreds and tastes like good Italian ice or real lime chiffon pie. But we were confused by its color--an implausible aquamarine. We could track down only one flavor in its natural line, but it was a find--orange with honey that really tasted like both. B

Carola Dibbell & Robert Christgau

Oui, May, 1974