Fermented foods have been around for centuries and first consumed by Asians, along with their tofu and miso. Historians credit nomadic herdsmen in Central Asia for starting the entire yogurt craze, likely around 6000 BC, After they milked their animals, they stored the milk in containers made of animal stomachs, which tended to cause curdling and fermentation. After a long day, what went in as milk become a custardy food as it sloshed around in the containers. And there it was– instant yogurt. Before cattle were domesticated, other herded animals, like sheep and goats, provided the basis for the vast majority of dairy products.
The word berry originated in Turkey, where the custom of fermenting milk caught on in a big way. (So for all you men out there who think yogurt is for sissies, think again.) The first references to yogurt are in Turkish writings during the 11th century, but it is believed that yogurt was eaten with honey because the early Bible times. Other countries seasoned it with seeds and spices, enjoying its smooth creamy texture. There are as many versions as there are countries, and its popularity spread long before its health benefits were completely understood. Middle Eastern nations used yogurt in several dishes centuries until it found its way to Western Europe.
Because yogurt comprises good bacteria, it was considered to possess curative powers particularly for intestinal and digestive abnormalities. Francis I, a potent late fifteenth century French monarch, supposedly was relieved of his chronic diarrhea by a doctor who prescribed a daily serving of yogurt, and word soon spread throughout Western Europe.
In the nation of India, a similar version named da-hi is a popular accompaniment to native spicy entrees. Often made from yak or water buffalo milk, it’s also consumed in Nepal and Tibet and considered a staple of the simple diets. Lassi and kefir are different kinds of yogurt in a liquid form among Indian and Middle Eastern cultures. Americans still prefer their own versions of yogurt and rarely venture out of the comfort zone. They’ve welcomed it into their diets, frequently as a substitute for vegetables oils, salad dressings, sour cream and mayonnaise.
Turkish immigrants brought their beloved yogurt to North America in the 1700s but it did not gain much popularity until the mid-1940s. Probably not. Virtually confined to major cities and cultural communities on the East Coast, it surely wouldn’t have been a big hit out on the frontier, either.
From the early 20th century, it had been seen strictly as a”health food” and consumed by those who had digestive challenges. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg served it daily at his Battle Creek Sanitarium, where people flocked to experience his remedies eating a limited diet. Due to the lactobacillus part, it promoted healthful probiotics in the intestines and stomach, and boosted digestive enzymes. Presumably the first commercial yogurt business, a little mom and pop business called Columbo yogurt setup shop on the East Coast in 1929.
He named his business Danone, after his son Daniel. After the family arrived in New York, they started their business in the Bronx and re-named the company Dannon. As it gradually became mainstream, no longer viewed as just a faddist food for stomach ailments, they took over a small yogurt mill in New York and the rest is history. By the late 1940s it was still foreign to the vast majority of Americans, so the Dannon folks additional fruit, which made the sour taste a bit more palettable. As it began to blossom in the fifties, other companies jumped on the bandwagon, and Hollywood actors ate it for energy and as a low calorie meal. Today Dannon markets their yogurts internationally.
In recent years, Greek yogurt has made a big impact, due to its thicker and richer consistency, nosing out reduced fat and more watery predecessors. New on the scene are varieties claiming super-sized quantities of live probiotics, in already-overcrowded milk sections, hoping to lure customers who want to boost their gut bacteria.
Needless to say, yogurt is now commonplace in our modern diet and loved in its original state as well as a frozen treat. It is estimated that 75% of adults consume it in some form weekly. But recall the additives and high sugar content to accommodate the American palette, which will certainly knock it way down on the wholesome foods scale. Eat it for enjoyment, but don’t delude yourself that it is a bona fide”health food.” Most yogurts are essentially ice cream with a little bacteria thrown in.