Yo, is that for real?

Frozen yogurt isn't ice cream, but it's not always the virtuous pick

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By Bridget Samburg
Globe Correspondent / June 10, 2009

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Like the "Seinfeld" episode when Elaine gains seven pounds from eating frozen yogurt she thought was fat-free, many frozen yogurt lovers might be surprised to learn that they aren't eating yogurt at all. It's called frozen yogurt, so it must be healthy: no fat, few calories, a divine bowl without regrets. Right? Not quite. The good news is that much of it is indeed lower in fat than ice cream. But what is labeled frozen yogurt isn't always the real deal, even if it tastes good. Instead, frozen yogurt has come to be synonymous with any frozen dairy treat that isn't ice cream .

A new wave of tangy frozen yogurt has hit the scene via the popular Pinkberry and Red Mango chains (neither in the Boston area yet, though Red Mango has sold two local franchises) that are serving fat-free, creamy, soft serve with a yogurt-esque flavor. The trend has spurred questions about what exactly is in these tart treats and everything else parading as frozen yogurt.

At BerryLine in Cambridge, where tartness is the draw, the popular shop is touting "yogurt," though co-owner Pok Yang says, "I wouldn't claim ourselves as yogurt. I would say, frozen yogurt." Then he laughs at his own semantics before explaining. BerryLine's concoction is made on the premises, not from a pre-ordered mix, says Yang. The product is mostly skim milk, plus some active live cultures, cane sugar, emulsifiers, and stabilizers, which create the creaminess. And creamy it is. Tart too. That's thanks to the cultures, says Yang.

"We don't want to tell people we're yogurt when we're not," says Yang. As for the calorie count, BerryLine's is reasonable with 125 calories for a 4-ounce serving. "The worst part is the cane sugar," he says. Ninety percent of BerryLine flavors are all natural (many include fresh fruits), says Yang, and only three flavors - Nutella, peanut butter, and Oreo - contain fat.

Because the Food and Drug Administration does not yet regulate frozen yogurt labeling, the National Yogurt Association is working to clarify questions consumers may have about what qualifies as actual yogurt. In order to be yogurt, there must be a minimum of 10 million live cultures per gram of substance, says association spokesman Chuck Fuqua. "There is certainly a concern that if it's labeled yogurt, it should be yogurt."

J.P. Licks owner Vince Petryk first introduced frozen yogurt here in the late 1980s when it was becoming popular on the West Coast. But he says customers didn't appreciate the tart, yogurt-like flavor. So, Petryk has been offering what he calls "tastes-like-ice-cream yogurt," which has live active cultures without the tangy flavor. And it's been a huge hit.

Petryk buys his hard-scoop and soft-serve frozen yogurt in a mix he describes as "a pasteurized mixture of dairy ingredients." He says it includes yogurt, milk, and sugar, among other ingredients. About 80 percent of his yogurt customers prefer soft serve, which is fat-free. The hard-scoop yogurt eaters are getting a 2 percent fat content. "It's icy if there is no fat," says Petryk of the hard version. J.P. Licks adds flavorings to the mix to come up with a bevy of options. Into raspberry yogurt, for example, go pureed strained raspberries. Soft-serve Oreo is made with pulverized cookies.

Petryk is giving the tastes-like-yogurt soft serve another try with YoTango. This very tart, almost sour, version is made from a mix that has a higher live culture count than his other frozen yogurt; it's creamy and fat-free.

At boYO, which recently opened in Charles River Plaza, co-owner Lori Peljovich mixes plain Stonyfield yogurt with Hood skim milk and sugar. Those ingredients make up the plain flavor. All other flavors - berry and honeydew are popular - are made by adding pureed fresh fruit to the plain base. "Companies tried to make it taste like ice cream," says Peljovich. "We're trying to make it taste like yogurt. There is that tart yogurt flavor."

Even though there's no yogurt in the frozen treat at Truly Yogurt in Wellesley, consistently long lines at the shop are a tribute to the soft serve's appeal. "It's not frozen yogurt," says owner Gary Goldman, "it's a frozen dessert." As for the ingredients, Goldman says he orders a mix from Hood that includes milk, sugar, cornstarch, whey protein, natural and artificial flavorings, and guar gum. No yogurt. "That's why we call it soft serve," he says, referring to a sign inside the store, which also lists the dozens of options available. There is one new soft-serve flavor every day and hard-scoop yogurt from Richardson's Ice Cream as well.

Hodgie's in Amesbury, which is mobbed with customers on most summer evenings, orders a mix from a Massachusetts dairy. Owner Jason Regis uses the same mix for the soft and hard yogurt. The base is fat-free and Regis says it is yogurt. "It's got the active cultures." The non-fat base may become loaded with fat depending on the flavor. It turns into coconut soft serve when coconut extract is added to the vanilla base, so the treat is still fat-free. That's not the case with mint cookies and cream.

Nona's Homemade in Hingham also relies on a liquid mix. Owner Kristen Donohue adds her own ingredients to come up with the 10 or so hard-scoop yogurt flavors she rotates through the shop. The base is fat-free. Chunky chips or peanut butter cups that she adds are not. "It's non-fat yogurt, but the mix-ins add all the fat," says Donohue.

The question remains, is it good for you? It's not good for you the way a bag of carrots is good for you or a long hike in the woods followed by lots of water is good for you. Petryk of J.P. Licks says the live active yogurt cultures contain health benefits. He adds that his YoTango flavor has a culture content comparable to that offered in regular yogurt. As for the calories, he says, it's better than full-fat ice cream.

BerryLine's Yang agrees. "It's a healthy dessert if you want to compare it to ice cream," he says.

But eat it often enough and like Elaine, you'll be cursing the scale.