Unless you know exactly what you're looking for, a trip to the yogurt section can be overwhelming. There are so many varieties, flavors and brands that you might be tempted to just grab something and run. But not all creamy dairy options are created equal. Here's a look at the good, the bad and the basics of this dairy staple.

History of yogurt

People have been eating yogurt for thousands of years. It originated from countries in Western Asia and the Middle East, and is a key part of the daily diet in many cultures, reports the Harvard School of Public Health. Researchers believe the word "yogurt" likely comes from the Turkish word "yoğurmak," which means to thicken or curdle.

There are stories of herdsmen who carried milk in pouches that were made of skins of animals. As they carried those sacs, the combination of natural enzymes in the pouches and body heat fermented the milk. The result was a thick, edible food that stayed fresh longer than milk.

Interest in yogurt varies by country. Most polls show that France, for example, has the largest per capita consumption of yogurt worldwide. In contrast, according to statistics from a study in Nutrition Reviews, only about 6% of people in the U.S. eat yogurt every day in the U.S.

Discovering yogurt's health benefits

As far back as 6000 B.C., there were references to the healthful properties of yogurt in Indian Ayurvedic scripts. But it wasn't until the start of the 20th century that researchers figured out why yogurt was beneficial.

Bulgarian medical student Stamen Grigorov brought a traditional clay pot — called a rukatka — filled with homemade yogurt to his lab in Geneva where he was studying, reports the BBC. He identified the bacteria — Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus — which caused the milk to ferment and become yogurt. The first was named in honor of his country. In fact, his hometown of Studen Izvor is home to the world's only yogurt museum.

Why yogurt is healthy

A small jar of yogurt, half consumed Greek yogurt has nearly twice the protein of traditional yogurt. (Photo: Kiian Oksana/Shutterstock)

Depending on the type and specific ingredients, you'll find many health benefits in yogurt.

Probiotics — The active living "good" bacteria in some yogurt are known as probiotics. There's still continuing research in the area, but there's evidence probiotics can help with gastrointestinal issues and to maintain a healthy digestive tract. Probiotics have been found to help with diarrhea, constipation, lactose intolerance, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), colon cancer and H. pylori infection, according to WebMD. Some probiotic strains are also believed to boost the immune system and may help discourage vaginal infections.

Protein — Yogurt is rich in protein with about 11 grams for 8 ounces of low-fat traditional fruit yogurt and 18 grams for low-fat fruit Greek yogurt. Your body uses protein to build bones, skin, muscles, blood and cartilage. Getting enough protein also helps you feel full so you don't overeat.

Nutrients — Yogurt is full of the same nutrients found in other dairy foods: It's rich in calcium, which is important for building and maintaining healthy teeth and bones. Loading up on calcium can help protect against osteoporosis. Because calcium works best when paired with vitamin D, it's best to eat yogurt that's vitamin D-fortified.

Yogurt is also high in B vitamins like B12 and riboflavin, which may protect against heart disease. Yogurt is rich in potassium, phosphorus and magnesium, which are all important for key body functions.

Watch out for the sugar — The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests you skip fruit or flavored yogurt. Instead, choose plain yogurt and add fresh fruit, vanilla or cinnamon to avoid added sugar. It can make a big difference. For example, non-fat plain Greek yogurt can have zero grams of added sugar while some fruit on the bottom traditional yogurts can have as much as 24 grams per serving container.

Types of yogurt

woman shopping in yogurt section of dairy aisle The yogurt section of the dairy aisle is awfully crowded and can be very confusing. (Photo: garetsworkshop/Shutterstock)

Back to that crowded yogurt section where you're trying to decide what to put in your grocery cart. There are at least a half-dozen different types of yogurt. Plus many of those types come in an array of flavors. According to a market survey, strawberry is the most popular flavor, followed closely by vanilla, blueberry and peach.

You'll find those flavors in all these main varieties on the shelves.

Traditional yogurt — Made with milk, this unstrained yogurt is creamy and not as thick as some other types. It can come with or without fruit and in many flavors. Depending on the type of milk that was used to make it, traditional yogurt comes in regular, low-fat or no-fat varieties.

Greek yogurt — Strained to remove some liquid, Greek yogurt is thicker than traditional yogurt and often has nearly twice as much protein. It usually has less sugar and fewer carbohydrates and is often used in Mediterranean cooking.

Australian yogurt — Described as somewhere in between traditional and Greek yogurt, this Down Under dairy is cooked longer and slower than regular yogurt so it has a creamy, velvet texture. It's often sweetened with honey.

Icelandic yogurt — Also known as Skyr yogurt, this is the thickest and smoothest type available because it's strained four times. Described as a tangy yogurt, Skyr is low in fat and rich in protein and calcium.

Non-dairy yogurt — If you can't or don't want to eat dairy, there are options like almond, soy and coconut yogurts. They typically have textures similar to traditional yogurts, but often have added sugars.

Kefir — This fermented drink is high in protein, calcium, probiotics, vitamin D and other nutrients. It often has a tart, bubbly taste.

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.

Everything you need to know about yogurt
Packed with protein, calcium and probiotics, yogurt is a popular dairy staple available in lots of varieties.