Yogurt is one of the things many folks report missing when they transition to a vegan diet. That creamy, sweet, have-it-at-any-meal food is really something special. Unfortunately, when it comes to animal welfare and the health of our planet, yogurt isn’t such a great option. Luckily, there have been many strides in the last several years in the development of great non-dairy yogurts that a) don’t taste like paste and b) mimic the sensation of eating traditional yogurt. It’s nothing short of amazing that yogurt can be fashioned from almost any grain or nut, including hazelnuts, almonds, coconut, oats and soy!

However, as with any ‘food product’ that has been manufactured for our enjoyment, it’s worth taking some time to explore the many options on the market and make an informed decision about which one you’ll bring home. Everything from packaging to ingredients plays a role, even when we can be positive that no animals were harmed in its making.

There are some incredible ways to use yogurt on this very site, including Homemade Soaked Oats in Coconut Yogurt, as well as this Breakfast Quinoa Bowl (just swap in yogurt for milk). Read on for a simple checklist of ideas to consult before committing to your next vegan yogurt purchase.

Look At The Ingredient List

Are there fewer than seven ingredients? That’s going to be an indicator that what’s inside that tub is going to be better for you than the product with upwards of twenty components. (Keep in mind, too, that the individual elements of things like flavor and color don’t need to be accounted for on the label, so that number might be twice what it appears if these artificial additives are involved). Ideally, yogurt should have a milk-like base (nut or grain milk), a culture (‘live cultures’ or specific bacterial specimen) and a fruit or two for flavor, if you like. Some yogurts may include amazake, which is a cultured rice by-product, which adds to the probiotic viability of the yogurt (so it’s a-okay in our books!).

Scope Out the Species

The bacteria in yogurt provide much of the nutritional benefit: they’re the reason that yogurt offers a little more for the body than just plain almond or coconut milk. These bacteria help populate the intestinal tract, balance bacterial colonies and can help improve immunity and digestion. Take a peek at which bacteria have been added to your vegan yogurt. Some are used for taste, while others are used to create uniform texture. Look for species like L. Acidophilus, B. Bifidium, L. Bulgaricus, S. Thermophilus, and L. Plantarum LM.

Consider Sugar Content

Some yogurts contain more than 22g of sugar per serving… not great when you consider that the World Health Organization recommends just 25 grams of sugar per day for an average weight adult.  Sweeteners can appear in the form of high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave, molasses, brown sugar, chicory root fiber, highly processed fruit extracts, among others. Even zero calorie sweeteners can impact the body’s ability to properly metabolize sugar (and can lead to cravings), so ingredients like stevia, zylitol and aspartame should also be avoided. For more on sweeteners, see this article.

Avoid Artificial Ingredients 

Artificial colors, dyes or flavors (including ‘natural strawberry flavor’, which isn’t a regulated or particularly helpful term) and texture regulators like corn starch detract or carrageenan from the healthfulness of yogurt. (Algin or agar-agar are more natural, safer seaweed extracts often used for texture modification, and these can be consumed in moderation.) Avoid ingredients that appear unnecessary; that is, if it’s not a culture, a fruit or the nut/grain milk used as a base, it probably doesn’t need to be there.

Explore Non-traditional Options

The food industry continues to come out with great non-dairy alternatives all the time. It’s great that we can embrace the experience of yogurt with the nutritional diversity different ingredients can bring. In early 2014, this article on Nut and Grain-based Yogurts appeared on One Green Planet. It’s good news for any vegan yogurt lover and a sign of things to come in the field of creamy, probiotic-packed foods.

Look to Farmers Markets

Sites like goodeggs.com and the New York City Greenmarkets can be great resources for locally sourced, handmade vegan yogurts. Check your local farmers market for yogurts made in small batches that are more likely to be made from great ingredients than the ones we find in packages.

Finding It Tough to Find A Great Brand?

Think about making your own! Check out this great tutorial on How to Make Your Own Coconut Yogurt from all of us at One Green Planet.