Greek yogurt rides a wave of popularity

Tom Vasiliades, owners of South Street Souvlaki, makes his own yogurt. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)

GREEK YOGURT - once considered "hippie food" - is experiencing a boom in popularity.

"Greek is chic right now," said Yoplait marketing manager Peggy Stang.

"We showed over 450 percent growth last year alone," reported Nicki Briggs, a representative of Chobani, a major Greek yogurt producer in the U.S.

Greek yogurt differs from other yogurt in that excess liquid is strained out of it. The process gives Greek yogurt its thick, creamy texture and concentrated health benefits. It's a staple in Mediterranean diets.

Chobani and competitor Stonyfield began producing Greek yogurt just three years ago. In 2008, major Greek yogurt producer Fage (pronounced Fa-yeh) built its first U.S. plant. Last month yogurt behemoth Yoplait launched a line of Greek yogurt.

Stonyfield representative Sarah Badger credits Greek yogurt's success with consumers to its health benefits, tart taste, thickness and versatility in cooking.

Authentic Greek yogurt contains twice the protein of regular yogurt because when the excess milk is strained out, solid whey protein remains.

"If you're looking for a good source of protein, Greek yogurt wins out over regular yogurt," said Dr. Christopher Bernabei of Philadelphia's Balance Health Center & Yoga Spa.

Greek yogurt also wins out over regular yogurt when it comes to probiotics. These are live bacteria cultures that improve digestion and boost immunity. All yogurts contain at least two strains of probiotics, but Greek yogurts can contain five or six strains, each with different properties.

"The art of making Greek yogurt is adding the probiotic cultures," said Chobani's Briggs.

Some probiotics can help convert lactose into lactic acid, making the product easier to digest for those with lactose intolerance. Less lactose correlates with less sugar.

In Greece, where yogurt is called yiaourti, its health benefits are legendary.

"It's old folklore that [in Greece] they use it for sunburns," said Stephen Nothangel, of Philadelphia's Estia Restaurant.

Tom Vasiliades, owner of South Street Souvlaki, said that in Greece yiaourti is "as popular as Coke." It is also considerably healthier.

At his restaurant, Vasiliades makes eight gallons of Greek yogurt every night.

"I don't buy it because I make the best," he said.

South Street Souvlaki and Estia Restaurant serve Greek yogurt in traditional Tzatziki dipping sauce, on its own or mixed with fruit, as a complement to savory dishes.

"When it comes down to it, a product succeeds or does not succeed based on taste," Briggs said. "It's not every day you find something you want to eat that is actually good for you."