Food for Thought: A short history of yogurt

We’re going back in time with yogurt. Follow along!

Ancient and Medieval Times

Yogurt is an ancient food, used by peoples in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East across the millennia. Yogurt first appeared during the Neolithic period, around 5,000–10,000 years ago, probably as a result of milk naturally souring in warm temperatures (thank you warm temperatures and souring milk!).

Evidence from ancient pottery shows that Neolithic people were using the pots to store milk. As a fermented food, yogurt was a great way to preserve milk, since the acidity slows the growth of harmful bacteria. Yogurt was a well-known food in the Greek and Roman empire and has played a major role in Mediterranean cuisine since 800 BCE.

If we move east to Mongolia, we can see that yogurt and related fermented dairy products were important foods for Genghis Khan’s army in the late 12thand early 13thcenturies. In fact, Genghis Khan believed the extraordinary bravery of his warriors was due to their regular consumption of yogurt.

Yogurt and longevity

In more recent history, yogurt was catapulted into fame following a lecture given by Elie Metchnikoff in 1904 at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Metchnikoff suggested that longevity among Bulgarians could be attributed to the beneficial lactobacilli bacteria in yogurt.

John Harvey Kellogg

Throughout its history, yogurt has had an association with health

This set off a craze for yogurt, as it became front-page news in Paris and word spread to media in England and Chicago. John Harvey Kellogg (yes that Kellogg!) decided that the patients at his sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan should each get a pint of yogurt. Soon, yogurt could be bought in pharmacies—the ultimate expression of food as medicine.

While Metchnikoff wasn’t quite right about the ability of yogurt bacteria to colonize the intestines, nor the promise of longevity, we know today that yogurt does provide many nutritional benefits.

Popularity in North America

Danone logo

While the yogurt craze of the early 1900s soon waned, its popularity rose again in the 1930s when Isaac Carasso started a yogurt factory that later became the Danone company, named after his son, Daniel. Daniel eventually took over the company and established branches in France and  New York. In the 1940s, Dannon (as the company was known in the US) combined yogurt with jams, a move that made yogurt popular to a broader market.

Interest in yogurt has been growing in recent times. In Canada, we have seen almost a seven-fold increase in yogurt available for consumption since 1979. 

Yogurt today

Canadian standards state that all yogurt must contain Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophiles. Other bacteria may also be added (e.g. L acidophilusB bifidus). Yogurt must have at least 10 million bacteria per gram at the time it is marketed. All yogurt contains live bacteria—it doesn’t need to say so on the label since, by law, it must contain them. 

Yogurt…your choice!

Today, consumers have a rich variety of choices in the yogurt aisle. And on top of that, you can make your own yogurt.

Yogurt is well-tolerated by people with lactose intolerance since the bacteria in yogurt help with digesting lactose. Yogurt is a calcium-rich food: ¾ cup of plain yogurt contains about 300 mg of calcium, while the same amount of fruit-flavoured yogurt contains about 200 mg. It’s great in smoothies, overnight oats, and stars in lassi


earthenware pot of yogurtTry draining your yogurt to make your own yogurt cheese that you can spread on bread or crackers. Because of its acidity, yogurt blends well in sauces without curdling and is used frequently in Indian cuisine, as in this recipe for Chicken Korma, or this for Shrimp and Cauliflower Curry. French parents often introduce their children to cooking by making a yogurt cake. The measuring is really simple in this recipe—just use the cup that yogurt comes in as the measure!

Yogurt is not a new food but it’s a versatile food that has been enjoyed by cultures around the world for thousands of years. Whether you like to cook with it or eat it on its own, there are many ways to enjoy this tangy foundational food.

About BC Dairy

BC Dairy is a not-for-profit organization representing BC’s dairy farmers.