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All about yogurt (it’s part of Greek culture)

Yogurt has risen from an ‘ethnic’ oddity to become one of our most popular snacks. ‘Today’ food editor Phil Lempert has a 101.

What are you snacking on when you watch the Olympics? If it’s yogurt, you have a connection, albeit loose, to the Summer Games.

Yes, yogurt — which, says ACNielsen, is one of the top ten fastest growing foods in practically every nation in the world — comes to us from the Greeks, the folks who started the Olympics and are this year’s hosts.

Yogurt is a fermented milk product that has almost legendary health benefits. Popularized by the Greeks and the neighboring Bulgarians, yogurt remains a lively part of their cuisine, and, some say, the reason for much of the longevity noted among these peoples.

It’s a delicious addition to breakfast cereals, is excellent with cucumbers and other fresh vegetables, and is a good base for fresh fruit. The primary health benefit of yogurt is the bacteria added to milk in the form of a “starter” that ferments the milk into a consistency ranging from soupy to gelatinous.

The bacteria are believed to contribute positively to intestines and colon health. People who are lactose intolerant may be able to eat dairy via yogurt products.

A Yogurt 101:Yogurt is made from milk that has had a “culture” (including lactobacillus bulgaricus, streptococcus thermophilus or acidophilus) added to it. Sweeteners may be added in the form of honey, sugar, or artificial sweeteners like aspartame or Splenda.

Regular YogurtThis is a mixture of whole milk of at least 2.35% fat and cream with the addition of the bacteria culture. It should be fresh tasting, creamy, and slightly tangy. One cup has about 150 calories, 8 g of fat and 296 mg of calcium. Low-Fat YogurtThis is made with low-fat milk ranging from 0.5 to 2% fat and some additional water plus the bacteria culture. One cup has about 155 calories, 4 g of fat and 447 mg of calcium. Non-Fat YogurtThis yogurt is made from nonfat milk (less than 0.5% fat) and additional water, plus the bacteria culture. One cup has about 137 calories, 0.4 g of fat and 488 mg of calcium. (Bear in mind that the “non fat” regulation set by the Food and Drug Administration allows for up to 0.5 grams of fat, and a product may still be labeled as “non fat.”)Flavored YogurtsYogurts these days are flavored with everything from coffee to vanilla to fruits or fruit jams which turns yogurt into a sweet dessert. They are frequently high in sugar and higher in fat and may have additives such as gelatin for stabilizing and artificial preservatives for the fruit. If consumed in small quantities, this is a pleasant way to get calcium in the diet. One cup has about 200 to 250 calories, 3 to 5 g of fat and 239 to 419 mg of calcium.

Like all dairy products, yogurt should be refrigerated at least 40ºF; and will last for about one week at home. Read the expiration date before you buy. Freezing yogurt is not recommended.

The milk solids and water will naturally separate in most yogurts after opening. Simply discard the water, or mix it back into the yogurt. Although some commercial flavors include sweetened lemon, it is best not to add fresh lemon or the yogurt will curdle and sour.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to