Yoghurt is often named a miraculously healthy food, eaten by the Gods and believed to prolong life and protect from dangerous diseases. Unfortunately, not all of these benefits can be achieved from the majority of mainstream yoghurts. Its ‘good for you’ reputation has attracted thousands of food companies to jump on this ‘wonder food’ bandwagon, turning yoghurt into a money-making machine whose benefits are usually compromised at the expense of cost-savings and high market share.
Coming from Bulgaria, which is believed to be the birthplace of yoghurt, I decided to dedicate a few posts on revealing the history of this milky treat and the ways to recognise the right type from the supermarket shelves.
Yoghurt is made when cow’s milk is mixed with the live, active bacteria Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. The blend ferments and the microorganisms alter the milk’s sugar (lactose) into lactic acid, which gives yoghurt its tart, tangy flavour and firm, custard-like texture.
Greek YoghurtGreek yoghurt is different than regular one as it is made by straining off the whey, [the watery part of milk that remains when milk is curdled] which makes it thicker and creamier. As a result, Greek yoghurt contains less sugar, fewer carbohydrates, and more protein than regular yogurt.
History of yoghurt
Evidence suggests that yoghurt dates back to the 3rd millennium B.C., when goatherds fermented milk in sheep-skin bags to conserve it. Analysis of the bacteria genome points that the bacteria may have originated on the surface of a plant. The fermenting process was probably discovered spontaneously and unintentionally when milk got into contact with plants. Another theory suggests that the bacteria may have been transferred via the udder of domestic milk-producing animals.
The oldest evidence mentioning yoghurt came from Pliny the Elder, who lived in the 1st century A.D. and wrote about ancient barbarous nations that knew how “to thicken the milk into a substance with an agreeable acidity.” “Thickening” was actually used three millenniums before Pliny’s time by Anatolian goatherds to conserve milk by drying it out in the sun and transporting it in sheep- or goat-skin bags. The result was called “yoghurt”, derived from a Turkish verb that means “to be curdled or coagulated; to thicken.”
In the records of ancient India and Iran, the combination of yoghurt and honey was called “the food of the gods” while Persian traditions hold that Abraham owed his fecundity and longevity to the regular consumption of yoghurt. In Europe yoghurt’s healing power appeared in French clinical history, describing that Francis I suffered from severe diahorrea which allegedly got cured only with yogurt.
Bulgarian YoghurtYoghurt is a symbol of pride in Bulgaria as it is considered the country’s exclusive invention and heritage that has been part of the nation’s diet for centuries. With a mildly sour-taste, the Bulgarian yoghurt, called kiselo mlyako or sour-milk is considered the healthiest of all dairy products that are available to consumers today.
What is unique about the Bulgarian type is that only in Bulgaria it preserves its qualities in further generations of the same strain, which means that you can use your previous yoghurt to start a new batch. Scientists still haven’t found an explanation to this phenomenon but many believe that it is due to the country’s unique climate which creates the perfect conditions for Lactobacillus Bulgaricus to develop. Thus for yogurt to be considered Bulgarian, it should be made with two specific cultures – Lactobacillus Bulgaricus and Streptococcus Thermophilus. The bacteria that contributes to transforming milk into yogurt, giving it its unique qualities, Bacillus Bulgaricus, grows only in Bulgaria and hence it is difficult to make Bulgarian yogurt anywhere else in the world without having the proper Bulgarian yoghurt starter culture.Bulgaria’s relationship with yoghurt started when the stock-breeders from the Thracian tribes, ancient inhabitants in the Bulgarian lands 4000 years B.C., placed sheep’s milk in lambskin bags around their waists and fermented yoghurt through their body heat. Another theory is associated with the “Proto-Bulgarians” (ancient people who inhabited the territory of Central Asia and present Bulgaria). It is believed that yoghurt came from the lactic sore drink “koumiss”, that Proto-Bulgarians used to prepare from mare (horse) milk. After Proto-Bulgarians settled down on the Balkans, they started breeding sheep and making “koumiss” from sheep milk, too. They also produced yoghurt under another name – “katak” (puree) by adding “diluted ” cheese into the fresh sheep milk. This product was usually made at the end of summer, when the milk from the animals had higher concentration of dry matter.Later in 1905, Stamen Grigorov, a Bulgarian student of medicine in Geneva, examined the micro flora of the Bulgarian yoghurt, discovering an agent causing the fermentation process – a specific bacillus. He also found two more bacteria: a Streptobacillus and a harmful Streptoccus thermophilus which blended with that Lactobacillus created a perfect symbiosis. These two bacteria are not part of the micro-flora in the human intestinal tract but are very beneficial to the digestion processes inside. Interested in Dr. Grigorov’s findings, professor Ilya Mechnikov, a Russian Nobel Prize laureate in Physiology and Medicine, discovered that more people lived to the age of 100 in Bulgaria than in the other 36 countries he studied. He attributed this phenomenon to the country’s unique traditional food – yoghurt.
Commercial YoghurtYoghurt was industrialised by Isaac Carasso who in 1919 started a small yoghurt business in Barcelona, giving it the name Danone (“little Daniel”) after his son. He used a modernised method that relied on the same principle used by the shepherds of Anatolia: bacterial fermentation of milk. The brand later expanded to the United States under an Americanised version of the name: Dannon. A variety of yoghurt dishes emerged afterwards. In Bulgaria, a summer favourite was Tarator – a cold soup made of water-diluted yoghurt, cucumbers, dill, garlic, walnuts and sunflower oil. Yoghurt with fruit jam was patented in 1933 by the Radlická Mlékárna dairy in Prague. In America it was first introduced in 1929 by an Armenian immigrant family who founded Colombo & Sons Creamery in Andover, Massachusetts using a traditional Armenian recipe. This business was bought by General Mills in 1993, but yoghurt is still made at the same location today. In 1950 health guru Gayelord Hauser pushed yogurt into the public consciousness when he published “Look Younger, Live Longer” which coined yoghurt as a wonder food. As a result, by 1968, sales of yoghurt had increased by 500%.Today yoghurt is present in almost everyone’s food plan, with a huge variety of brands offering their yoghurt treats, ranging from 30p to £2 or even more for a small pot. Bombarded with ‘good for you’ advertising messages and enticing packaging, consumers often feel perplexed by the abundance of choice in today’s supermarkets. However, as with many other foods, left by our ancestors, today’s yoghurt is not what it used to be. Being brought up with homemade yoghurt, I know the real taste and only just recently have discovered two mainstream brands that ‘get it right’. In the next post, I will reveal their faces and tell you why yoghurt is so vital for our health.
With health & balance,