A quick glance at the nutrition label is all it takes to notice yogurt’s redeeming qualities. In addition to a respectable amount of protein, it offers calcium, phosphorous, and even some vitamin B12 and riboflavin, which help harness and utilize energy from carbohydrates.But fruity versions can often contain significantly more calories and almost as much sugar as a candy bar(and nope, a Snickers is not a balanced meal!).

The Pros of Probiotics — The Need-to-Know

Yogurt’s definitely not all bad. One 8 ounce serving can hold as much as half the recommended daily dose of calcium, which is essential for maintaining healthy bones and teeth, normal nerve function, and even heartbeat (and for that, it wins our hearts). Yogurt also has a healthy dose of electrolytes and probiotics, a type of “good” bacteria that aids digestion and may help protect against unhealthy bacteriaProbiotics, prebiotics, and synbiotics. De Vrese, M., Schrezenmeir, J. Institut fur Physiologie und Biochemie der Ernahrung, Max Rubner Institut, Hermann-Weigmann-Str, Kiel, Germany. Advances in Biochemical Engineering and Biotechnology, 2008;111:1-66.. Yogurt’s probiotics have also been associated with everything from cancer and asthma prevention to improved immunity, though researchers say more evidence is neededImmunologic effects of yogurt. Meydani, S.N., Ha, W.K. Jean Mayer US Department of Agriculture and Human Nutrition Research Center on Againg and the Department of Pathology, Sackler Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Tufts Unviersity, Boston, MA. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2000 Apr;71)4_:861-72..

While pure, unadulterated yogurt (think plain, low-fat yogurt) can be an excellent addition to a healthy diet, sugary fruit-flavored concoctions aren’t nearly as guilt-free. Because yogurt has naturally occurring sugar, like lactose from milk, even fruit-free versions may seem to have a lot of sugar based on the nutrition facts. The real issue is when sugar is added on top of what naturally occurs in yogurt, racking up the calorie and carb count far beyond normal.

Ditch the Added Sugar — Your Action Plan

Checking the nutrition label gets extra tricky when it comes to yogurt because natural and added sugars are listed together. To judge whether a yogurt has added sugars, scan the label for ingredients like corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, maltose, or nearly any other “syrup” or “sugar.” Fat-free or low-fat yogurt (sometimes called “skim” or “part-skim”) is also often a better option than full-fat varieties to cut down on calories, while yogurt higher in protein, like Greek yogurt, can up the full factorHigher-protein foods produce greater sensory-specific satiety. Vandewater, K., Vickers, Z. Department of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN. Physiology and Behavior, 1996 Mar; 59)3): 579-83.. As for especially probiotic-rich formulas (like Activia), research on their effectiveness is conflicting. Studies haven’t shown them to be harmful, but they may not always promote digestive health as well as they claimEffect of the ingestion of a symbiotic yogurt on the bowel habits of women with functional constipation. De Paula, J.A., Carmuega, E., Weill, R. Gastroenterology Division, Hospital Italiano of Buenos Aries, Argentina. Acta Gastroenterologica Latinoamericana, 2008 Mar;38(1):16-25.The probiotic yogurt Activia shortens intestinal transit, but has not been shown to promote defecation. Katan, M.B. Vrije Universiteit, Unstituut Gezondheidswetenschappen, De Boelelaan, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Nederlands tijdschrift voor geneeskude, 2008 Mar 29;152(13):727-30. . If plain yogurt is just too— well, plain— try adding in chopped fruit (fresh or frozen!), berries, nuts, or a teaspoon of honey (to satisfy that sweet tooth), which may impact glucose levels less than dextrose or sucroseNatural honey lowers plasma glucose, C-reactive protein, homocysteine, and blood lipids in healthy, diabetic, and hyperlipidemic subjects: comparison with dextrose and sucrose. Al-Waili, N.S. Dubai Specialized Medical Center and Medical Research Laboratories, Islamic Establishment for Education, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Journal of Medicinal Food, 2004 Spring;7(1):100-7..

However, there are still certain groups that should avoid yogurt. Obviously, it’s not a good idea for those who are lactose intolerant to get in on the yogurt love, no matter how healthy it may be. Soy versions may be a good alternative source of calcium, though these varieties are often still packed with sugar. For the rest of us, though, plain ol’ yogurt will do— just eat responsibly.

Photo by Collin Orcutt