Yogurt makes a healthy, nutritious snack

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Nutritionally speaking, yogurt retains a certain mysterious quality. Most people classify it as a healthy food - which it certainly is, as long as you avoid the high-fat, sugar-laden varieties.

Cup for cup, low-fat yogurt has about 150 milligrams more calcium than low-fat milk and provides more than one-third of your daily needs. It's also a good source of protein; yogurt supplies 50 percent more protein than milk, since it is usually thickened with nonfat milk solids. It also has good amounts of B vitamins (especially vitamin B12) and minerals. Again, in the milk, cheese and yogurt group you need two servings daily (three for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding; four for teenagers who are pregnant or breastfeeding). Typical serving sizes are 1 cup milk, 8 ounces of yogurt, or 1 to 2 ounces of cheese. This group is generally high in protein, calcium and vitamin B 2. It is low in iron, manganese, copper and vitamin C.

Low-fat yogurt (or better yet fat-free yogurt) is a good thing to keep around if you're watching your calorie and fat intake. Both are low in calories, considering the nutrients they provide, and can substitute for high-fat items such as mayonnaise and sour cream.

Fruit yogurts are less nutritious than plain, since the fruit takes up space in the cup; thus you get less yogurt, fewer vitamins and minerals, and much more sugar. If the fruit is from preserves, which it often is, the yogurt supplies even fewer nutrients. Choose plain yogurt, because it has the fewest calories. You can add your own fruit or sweeteners if you like.

Some yogurts contain artificial flavors or colors, as well as sweeteners (natural and artificial), such as sugar, honey, molasses, corn syrup, fructose, or aspartame. A cup of regular sweetened vanilla, lemon, or coffee yogurt contains the equivalent of 3 teaspoons of sugar; fruit flavors may have as much as 7 teaspoons per cup. Some extra-rich yogurts have egg yolks added.

A number of health benefits are attributed to the active bacterial cultures in yogurt. One benefit for which there is good evidence applies to people with lactose intolerance; that is, they have trouble digesting the lactose (milk sugar) in dairy products. These people can eat yogurt with live cultures since the bacteria help in digesting lactose.

Plain, or unflavored, yogurt is the original and most versatile of yogurts. It contains from 100 to 160 calories per cup. All yogurts, from fat-free to whole-milk, come in a variety of flavors, ranging from simple vanilla with added sugar to fruit flavored. The fruit-flavored yogurts fall into two categories: Sundae-style yogurts, in which the fruit is at the bottom of the container and must be stirred in; and blended, custard-like, Swiss- or French-style yogurts, in which the fruit is distributed throughout the yogurt. Ideally, custard-style yogurts are usually made with egg yolks.

Serving suggestions:

- Use yogurt as a part of a marinade for chicken;

- Use low-fat yogurt instead of sour cream in baking;

- Mash potatoes with plain low-fat yogurt instead of butter or sour cream;

- Use yogurt to lighten a potato salad dressing; and

- Make your own fruit yogurt by stirring an all-fruit spread into plain yogurt.

For storage, keep your yogurt in its original container in the refrigerator. An unopened container of yogurt with live cultures should keep for about 10 days past the "sell by date"; pasteurized yogurt will keep even longer. However, check to see that the yogurt looks and smells fresh when you open it.