Photo: Dan Saelinger

Stroll through the dairy aisle of your grocery store and you may notice that fat is back—at least in the yogurt case. Although low-fat and nonfat yogurts still dominate the dairy aisle, according to market research firm Mintel, there has been an astounding 2,675 percent increase in the number of whole-milk yogurt products on store shelves in the past decade as consumers more and more perceive “whole” products to be healthier.

Switching to whole milk could be a revelation for your taste buds, too. The flavor is rich, and the texture is often creamier than even the creamiest low-fat versions.

Plus you might not need to choose between health and taste. Scientists are just now starting to dig into the research about whole-milk dairy products, says Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., Dr.P.H., dean of the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “What it suggests is that there may be health benefits to whole-fat dairy.”

But not all yogurts are created equal. (Learn about the "grass fed" label you might find on some yogurt.) Consumer Reports’ food testers looked at 23 whole-milk regular and Greek products in two flavors, plain and berry.

Dairy Fat’s Nutritional Benefits

“In observational studies we see clear associations between consumption of all types of yogurt and lower risk of obesity, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes,” says Mario Kratz, Ph.D., an associate member at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

For example, a 2014 Harvard analysis of studies found that a daily serving reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes by 18 percent. A study of 1,500 adults published recently in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes found that those who ate the most dairy—1½ to 7 cups of butter, cheese, cream, milk, or yogurt per week—had less body fat, smaller waists, and a lower body mass index than those who ate about ¾ cup or less.

“When we drilled down into the different types of dairy we saw especially promising results for yogurt,” says Emma L. Feeney, Ph.D., lead author and research program manager of Food for Health Ireland at University College Dublin’s Institute of Food and Health.

Theories abound about why yogurt might be beneficial. One is that it’s loaded with protein, which some ­experts believe could help prevent weight gain by making you feel fuller, longer. But it may be more likely that other factors are responsible, Kratz says, such as the probiotics (good bacteria) or the complex mixture of micronutrients, vitamins, minerals (such as calcium), and fatty acids—of which dairy products have about 400 types.  

In particular, a type of fat in dairy called sphingolipids appears to benefit the heart. But their effects on your health might depend on the food you get them from. Butter, for example, has a low sphingolipid content compared with cream or cheese, so it could diminish the fats’ heart-protective properties and raise levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol.

“You can have dairy fat in the form of butter, and you can have the exact same amount in cheese, and it has quite a different effect,” Feeney says. “We just really don’t know what the best food matrix is to eat it in.”

Similarly, it’s not clear which type of yogurt—whole-milk or low-fat—has a nutritional advantage. Still, Mozaffarian adds, “there’s little evidence that low-fat dairy is better.” And if anything, he says, research is starting to suggest that whole-milk dairy products might be better. 

Feeney’s study, for example, found that people who ate higher-fat dairy products had just as healthy, if not healthier, triglyceride levels than those who ate lower-fat dairy products. ­Several studies in children have found that eating whole-fat dairy is associated with less weight gain over time than low-fat dairy. One 2013 study involv­ing 10,700 preschoolers found that those who drank low-fat milk were more likely to be overweight or obese than those who drank whole milk.

Still, research doesn’t directly prove that eating yogurt (or any other type of dairy) causes you to be healthier, Kratz says. It could be that people who eat yogurt are healthier to begin with, he says, or that they’re eating yogurt in place of a less healthy snack, such as a jelly donut. For now you should factor any whole-milk yogurt you eat into your daily saturated-fat intake.

Avoid Sugar Shock

In our tests we found that fat and sugars vary across brands. “You really need to compare nutrition labels,” says Ellen Klosz, a CR nutritionist who led the testing. Certain flavored ­versions can have more sugars than some ice cream.

Previous research has found that those who eat yogurt regularly gain less weight over time than those who don’t, and a 2015 study by Tufts University’s Mozaffarian found that those who ate sugar-sweetened yogurt gained more than those who ate plain. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) of added sugars per day for women and no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men.

Not all of the sugars in flavored ­yogurt come from added sugars—even plain yogurt has some sugars from the naturally occurring lactose in milk—but if you opt for flavored ­yogurt, check the ingredients lists to see how many kinds of sugars are listed. “The Brown Cow strawberry yogurt, which had the highest sugars content in our test,” Klosz says, “contained not just cane sugar but also honey and maple syrup.”

What's in That Sweet Treat?

Craving something cool and creamy? Check our comparison of plain and flavored whole-milk yogurt vs. ice cream.  

Brown Cow Plain Whole Milk Yogurt (6 oz., with 1 tsp. honey and ¼ cup strawberry slices)
160 calories, 8 g fat, 4.5 g sat. fat, 6 g protein, 19 g carbs, and 17 g sugars (about 4 tsp.)

Brown Cow Strawberry Whole Milk Yogurt (6 oz.)
190 calories, 6 g fat, 3.5 g sat. fat, 5 g protein, 29 g carbs, and 28 g sugars (7 tsp.)

Häagen-Dazs Strawberry Ice Cream (6 oz.)
360 calories, 23 g fat, 14 g sat. fat, 6 g protein, 33 g carbs, and 30 g sugars (about 8 tsp.)

Is Grass-Fed Always Greener?

The “100% Grass Fed” label—which suggests that the dairy product came from a cow that ate only grass and no grain—has been splashed across more and more dairy products ­recently. But one question remains: Is grass-fed dairy healthier than regular?

What we do know is that milk from grass-fed cows has substantially more of the types of fat—such as omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acids—that are linked to a range of benefits, including weight loss and a lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and certain cancers.

Though the evidence suggesting the health benefits of grass-fed dairy so far is unknown, that shouldn’t stop you from trying these products, Kratz says.

In certain grass-fed ­yogurts and dairy products we tried, our taste panelists noted slight “grassy” or “cheesy” flavors, which can take some getting used to, Klosz says. Others tasted more like conventional yogurt. “Though we can’t generalize this to all grass-fed ­yogurts,” Klosz says, “whether you like them will really ­depend on the taste you prefer.”

Grass-fed dairy is also a sustainable choice because grass-fed cows tend to be healthier and to require fewer antibiotics than their grain-fed relatives.

But not all grass-fed claims are verified. Look for certification accompanying the “100% Grass Fed” claim, such as “American Grassfed,” “PCO Certified 100% GrassFed,” or “Certified Grassfed by AGW.”

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the August 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.