clock menu more-arrow no yes

Is America ready for high-fat yogurt?

How low-fat dairy came to rule the US — and why that’s changing.

A shopper looks at a yogurt package in a grocery store aisle. Getty Images

Up in the vast Canadian north, there is a product so rare and good that it markets itself as “opulent” and “THE MOST INDULGENT” and “the richest and creamiest.”

I am talking, of course, about Liberté Méditerranée 9 percent yogurt, a cultured dairy product so delicious that I’ve thought of its richness every single day since I ate it on vacation in 2015. After I finished, I felt literally drunk and stumbled around my Airbnb, clutching the egg of my yogurt-filled stomach. There was the line between pleasure and pain; ever since then, I have dreamed of going back.

From “Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” 1980.

In America, most full-fat yogurts have 4 to 5 percent fat. (Think of your standard full-fat Fage.) Liberté Méditerranée has almost twice as much, an increase in fat so flagrantly lush that you might as well call it fridge-temperature ice cream. For years, I searched for an American equivalent, which actually took much longer than expected. Decades of dubious low-fat trends have pushed dairy fat to the margins of our culture. It was only last year, with the ascendancy of keto — a trendy high-fat, low carb diet — that high-fat yogurts debuted on our shelves as something between a health food product and a treat.

Today, there are two different products on the market: Siggi’s 9 percent Triple Cream, and Peak 17 percent yogurt. Before I could try them, I first had to ask, “What caused Americans to hate milkfat in the first place?”

America’s love affair with low-fat dairy

Up until the 1940s, Americans ate a pretty high-fat diet. According to food historian Ann F. La Berge, most Americans in the North ate “meat stews, creamed tuna, meat loaf, corned beef and cabbage, [and] mashed potatoes with butter.” Americans in the South preferred (similarly high-fat) “ham hocks, fried chicken, country ham, [and] biscuits and cornbread with butter or gravy.”

By the 1940s, coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death in the United States. America is never a nation to roll over and die, so physicians and scientists got to work researching causes and preventive measures. That decade saw the birth of several heart health studies, like the Seven Countries Study and the Framingham Heart Study, which, as La Berge puts it, “suggested a strong correlation between diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol and increased incidence of cardiovascular disease.”

Through the 1950s and ’60s, several institutions, including the American Heart Association, published reports suggesting that a lower-fat diet might reduce the risk of heart disease. These reports were tentative; most recommended the dietary change only for those with cardiac issues.

Nevertheless, by 1977, when the Senate convened the first Select Committee on Nutritional and Human Needs, the so-called diet-heart hypothesis had been been misconstrued as the diet-heart gospel. The first US “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” released in 1980, recommended that all Americans eat fewer high-fat foods and substitute nonfat milk for whole milk. “By 1984,” writes La Berge, “the scientific consensus was that the low-fat diet was appropriate not only for high-risk patients, but also as a preventative measure for everyone except babies.”

Spurred by demands from a fat-phobic public, the ’80s saw the rise of new low-fat snacks, which tended to cover the spread with added sugar. SnackWell’s cookies, an icon of this age, filled up the cupboards of dieting aunts. These paired great with low- or nonfat milk, the combined sales of which surpassed whole milk for the first time ever in 1988. Between 1980 and 2014, sales of whole milk decreased 45 percent as sales of 2 percent and skim rose 7 percent and 9 percent, respectively.

This trend line extended to cultured dairy. If you, like me, were born in the ’90s, you probably grew up eating low-fat yogurts like Original Yoplait (99 percent fat-free) or low-fat Dannon Fruit on the Bottom. Even YoCrunch, that junk-food yogurt with toppings, used (and still uses) low-fat yogurt as its base. This is just to say, low-fat yogurt was yogurt; it was what people wanted when they said they wanted yogurt. What began as an unproven heart disease theory had come to embody an implicit consumer logic.

The question of what kinds of fat one should eat is still pretty much unresolved. What we know today for sure is this: It doesn’t really matter how much fat you eat, so long as you don’t eat too many calories. (Fats contain 9 calories per gram, compared to carbs and protein, which each have 4.) We also know that trans fats are bad, and we kinda-sorta think that unsaturated fats might be better than saturated fats. Beyond this, we can’t say too much for sure. In terms of food trends, it doesn’t really matter because fads are rarely backed by concrete fact.

Dairy fat begins to make a comeback

So up through the ’90s, the thinking went: “Fats are bad and carbs are fine.” This began to change with the Atkins diet, which rose to fame at the end of the decade as a quick-fix way to lose lots of weight. According to the wisdom of Dr. Robert Atkins, carbs were actually bad and fats were actually fine. His logic led my grandpa to eat pork rinds for a year. It also caused a plunge in the sale of bread and brought difficult times to doughnut seller Krispy Kreme.

Like all fads, it eventually passed, but not before reintroducing fat to the American diet. The post-Atkins decade saw the rise of good fats, a nonscientific subclass of fats that includes the unsaturated fats in avocado, fish, and coconut oil. More recently, the keto diet has come to reclaim even saturated fats. Adherents strive to keep their bodies in ketosis by eating a specific balance of macronutrients, or macros, made up of mostly fats, some protein, and very few carbs. To hit these macro goals, some go as far as dumping pats of grass-fed butter into their coffee.

“Higher-fat milk and yogurts are driving category growth,” says Rachel Kyllo, the senior vice president of growth and innovation at Kemps, a subsidiary of Dairy Farmers of America. “Consumers are learning that higher-fat dairy products have a place in healthy diets.”

In 2018, sales of whole milk and whole-fat yogurt have increased by 1.6 percent and 11.6 percent, respectively, as fat-free yogurt has decreased by 10.9 percent. This shift in taste has birthed a slew of high-fat yogurts. Siggi’s 9 percent Triple Cream first came to market in 2017; it is now available nationwide in markets like Whole Foods, which is where I bought mine.

Peak, a Portland, Oregon-based keto yogurt brand, has gone one step further, producing a vanilla yogurt with 16 percent fat and a plain variety with 17 percent. I was not able to find Peak in stores, but the company was gracious enough to ship me a case in dry ice. During the week it took to arrive, I found myself libidinous for the lipidinous good stuff. Would it really taste as good as my long-lost Liberté?

Peak Yogurt

Without too much vamping, I’ll just come clean and say that the Goods team loved the high-fat yogurts: The plain-flavored Peak tasted sumptuously round, with a sweet fattiness that made up for lack of sugar. The vanilla-flavored Peak was also delicious — a tangier, more chill cousin of panna cotta. By far, we agreed the Siggi’s Triple Cream was best. The 9 percent fat was luscious, but not so luscious that it wasn’t immediately recognizable as yogurt. We all thought the raspberry flavor would be great if it was, like, 3:30 pm and you were coming out of a doctor’s appointment and you wanted to eat something substantial that wouldn’t spoil your dinner.

In general, our team struggled to eat the high-fat yogurts without at least joking about calories. A single plain Peak has 270 calories. (The same amount of whole-fat plain Chobani has 143 calories.) Peak’s macros make sense if you’re on the keto diet, but most Americans are not. For American women especially, yogurt has long been marketed as a dieter’s food — the kind of thing you eat when you want to lose weight. Even in the gender-neutral, post-Chobani era, we still think of yogurt as a healthy-ish “treat.” Are we ready to accept yogurt as an actual treat? The answer to this question will probably decide the fate of high-fat yogurts in our market.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.