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 whole yogurt craze, probably 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 turned into a custardy food as it sloshed around inside the containers. And there it was– instant yogurt. Before cattle were domesticated, other herded animals, like sheep and goats, supplied the basis for the majority of dairy products.
The word yogurt originated in Turkey, where the practice of fermenting milk caught on in a big way. Recorded history tells us that Genghis Khan, leader of the Mongol Empire, and his armies lived on yogurt. (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 since the early Bible times. Other countries seasoned it with spices and seeds, enjoying its smooth creamy texture. There are as many versions as there are countries, and its popularity spread long before its health benefits were totally understood. Middle Eastern countries used yogurt in many dishes centuries before it found its way to Western Europe.
Because yogurt contains good bacteria, it was believed to have curative powers especially for digestive and intestinal abnormalities. Francis I, a powerful late fifteenth century French monarch, purportedly was relieved of his chronic diarrhea by a physician who prescribed a daily helping of yogurt, and word soon spread throughout Western Europe.
In the country of India, a similar version called da-hi is a popular accompaniment to native spicy entrees. Frequently made from yak or water buffalo milk, it is also consumed in Nepal and Tibet and considered a staple of their simple diets. Iranians love yogurt as a side dish, often combined with cucumbers and other vegetables, and a popular substitute for sour cream. Lassi and kefir are other forms 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 their comfort zone. They have 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 didn’t gain much popularity until the mid-1940s. Did Thomas Jefferson serve yogurt at state dinners? Probably not. Virtually confined to major cities and ethnic communities on the East Coast, it certainly would not have been a big hit out on the frontier, either.
By the early 20th century, it was viewed 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 cures eating a restricted diet. Because of the lactobacillus component, it promoted healthy probiotics in the intestines and stomach, and boosted digestive enzymes. Presumably the first commercial yogurt enterprise, a small mom and pop business called Columbo yogurt set up shop on the East Coast in 1929.
About the same time that Americans were noshing the creamy foodstuff as a “health” food, a man named Isaac Carasso began commercial production in Barcelona, Spain. He named his business Danone, after his son Daniel. When the family arrived in New York, they opened their business in the Bronx and re-named the business Dannon. As it gradually became mainstream, no longer viewed as just a faddist food for stomach ailments, they took over a small yogurt factory in New York and the rest is history. By the late 1940s it was still foreign to the majority of Americans, so the Dannon folks added fruit, which made the sour taste a little 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. The founder’s son Daniel lived to the ripe old age of 103, attributing his longevity to a lot of yogurt.
In recent years, Greek yogurt has made a big impact, due to its thicker and richer consistency, nosing out lower fat and more watery predecessors. New on the scene are varieties claiming super-sized amounts of live probiotics, in already-overcrowded dairy sections, hoping to lure customers who want to boost their gut bacteria.
Of course, 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 beware the additives and high sugar content to accommodate the American palette, which would certainly knock it way down on the healthy foods scale. Eat it for enjoyment, but don’t delude yourself that it’s a bona fide “health food.” Most yogurts are basically ice cream with a little bacteria thrown in.