What if the Fountain of Youth is Made of Yogurt?

All the ways yogurt might save your life are just more reasons to make {Beet Yogurt Spread}

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From the picture, you might guess this post is going to be about beets, but you’d be wrong. While those hearty root vegetables provide the substance and vivid burgundy color of this easy spread, a heaping dollop of yogurt is the ingredient that will pique your palate with its tart tang as you savor its incredible lightness and complexity.

But tasting delicious is just an incidental bonus of yogurt; it really sets itself apart by providing unrivaled nutritional density, maintaining a happy ecosystem of beneficial bacteria in our digestive tracts, and possibly, lengthening lives. Did I mention it’s a breeze to make at home?

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Homemade yogurt and honey, which was referred to as “the food of the gods” in ancient India, along with some local hazelnuts and raspberries. Not a bad breakfast!

To understand how fantastic yogurt really is, let’s start at the beginning. Yogurt is just cow’s milk that has been fermented by a group of helpful bacteria (Lactobacilli and Streptococci) into a thicker, more acidic substance. You can strain it or flavor it after the fact, but this is how all yogurt starts. These beneficial organisms partially digest the sugars and proteins in the milk,  turning them into compounds like glucose, lactase, and lactic acid, among others. Practically, this has a major benefit: yogurt keeps longer than milk because of the acidity it develops during fermentation.

More recently, though, scientists have begun to realize other advantages of the fermentation process: people who suffer from lactose-intolerance can often handle yogurt because the offending molecule has been broken down beforehand by the bacteria. The same goes for the protein casein, another allergen found in milk that becomes more agreeable after fermentation. And all this pre-digestion (I know, that sounds gross) may also make it easier for our bodies to absorb and utilize all the good vitamins and minerals found in yogurt, like calcium and B12, nutrients which can be elusive for vegetarians.

Cup for cup, yogurt has twice as much protein and calcium as milk, and a third more B12, even though it contains just 30 more calories and a few more grams of naturally-occurring sugars. I should note that super sweet fruity yogurt does not count. This stuff is in a different category altogether. As I recently learned in Michael Moss’ fascinating article in the New York Times Magazine, a serving of Yoplait contains twice as much sugar as a bowl of the quintessential breakfast junk food, Lucky Charms. There’s nothing healthy about that.

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But nutrition aside, it is the powerful medicinal qualities of yogurt that interest me most. Eating yogurt has been clinically proven to reduce diarrhea in people taking antibiotics. This problem occurs often because, in the name of killing the few bacteria responsible for your illness, antibiotics essentially annihilate all microbial life in your body. Unfortunately, most of these organisms work on your behalf doing helpful things like suppressing the growth of harmful bacteria in your stomach. The live cultures in yogurt, however, help replenish the ranks of the good guys in your digestive ecosystem, preventing you from getting sick. Even beyond the gut, regular consumption of yogurt seems to promote general immunity for reasons that remain unclear.

Which leads us to an even bigger mystery: eating yogurt (the good kind, at least) is associated with long-term weight maintenance or loss. This was demonstrated most robustly in the Nurses’ Health Study, a twenty-year project that tracked participants’ weight, eating habits, and exercise regimens at four year intervals. Along with shoo-ins like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, yogurt stood out as being a favorite food of those people who gained the least weight over the decades of midlife that typically coincide with slow but steady weight gain even in normal weight individuals.

Why an animal product with naturally occurring fats, sugars, and even a smidge of cholesterol helps people stay slim is anyone’s guess. Advocates of fermented foods, like the evangelist Sandor Katz, would probably argue that it’s no coincidence: fermented foods have been part of the human diet for millennia, and the benefits of live cultures may very well outweigh any caloric “penalties” of yogurt.

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And this brings me to the most intriguing possibility of all: eating yogurt might even help you live longer. Though this has not been scientifically proven (and is probably impossible to test), it has been rumored since biblical times to be true. Anecdotally, there is some circumstantial support for this claim. There are a few places in the world with unusual densities of extremely old folks, like the Greek island of Ikaria, nearby Sardinia, and a smattering of small villages in Bulgaria. In all of these places, yogurt is a staple of the cuisine. There are admittedly other factors that contribute to their longevity, like spending lots of time being active outside, having strong familial relationships, and eating the revered “Mediterranean diet.” But I think it’s safe to say that indulging in yogurt won’t do any harm. Plus it just tastes good.

So the best part, which I’ve been saving to last, is that yogurt works like sourdough—once you have a starter, you can make as much yogurt as you want for nothing more than the price of your milk. And all you need for a starter is some yogurt with live cultures. From here, I will simply refer you to this excellent resource on making your own yogurt. I’ve been making mine with a starter from a brand of skyr, a deliciously creamy yogurt made in Iceland that I got hooked on while living in Copenhagen. Beet spread or not, I hope you give this healthy, simple experiment a try!


Beet Yogurt Spread
(makes ~2 cups)

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4 medium beets
½ c. plain Greek yogurt (find the recipe here)
2 tbsp. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ tsp. salt

IMG_2491In a large pot, bring several inches of water to a boil, enough to cover the beets. Scrub the beets and cook them until a fork easily pieces the flesh, 30-40 minutes. Drain and let sit until cool enough to handle. Peel the beets by running them under a cold tap and gently sloughing off the skin. Chop coarsely.

In the large bowl of a food processor, combine all ingredients. Puree until very smooth.

Serve with bread or use as a vegetable dip or eat it straight. It will keep for several days in the refrigerator.

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