Once upon a time, yogurt occupied a thin sliver of the dairy aisle. Now it’s an entirely separate section of the grocery store. There are at least a dozen brands of plain yogurt, but wait! There’s more! Yogurt comes with fruit on the bottom, sprinkles on top, M&Ms mixed in, and almond butter swirled over. The choice is overwhelming, but it’s also what consumers have come to expect.
For many Americans, yogurt is a staple snack food. In other parts of the world, it’s a marinade, a dip, a base for a soup, a drink. Indians stir it with chickpea flour and turmeric to make a warming, bright yellow dish called kadhi. Persians use strained yogurt as an aromatic side dish called mast o khiar, with cucumbers, rose petals, raisins, herbs, and garlic. In Turkey and Lebanon, meat dumplings are bathed in a tangy yogurt sauce to make shish barak. In the US, in spite of all the years yogurt has been a fridge mainstay, we’re still stuck on fruit and granola. Go figure.
But despite the more narrow American views of yogurt, it has managed to occupy a unique role in the country’s food culture — its evolution on grocery shelves has mirrored that of eating habits and cultural touchpoints. There have been distinct eras in yogurt tastes, from Greek to Icelandic to nondairy, and each one offers a glimpse into the ingredients, diets, and narratives people were buying into at the time. Sure, yogurt is just one product in a sea of groceries. But it tells a compelling, complete story about the American diet.
1980s and 1990s: The sugary yogurt era
Yogurt showed up in America from Europe as early as the mid-20th century, in the wake of World War II. In Europe, it was a fridge staple meant for snacking or eating for breakfast — plain, tart, and creamy, often adorned with some berries. In the US, though, it would be a while before yogurt achieved that same staple status.
The problem, says Frank Palantoni, who was vice president of marketing for Dannon from 1987 to 1991, is that in its pure, unsweetened form, “yogurt tasted terrible to the American palate.” Americans associated dairy products with ice cream and milkshakes, and therefore a lot of sugar. “Everyone was brought up such that if it smells tart, you throw it away,” he says. In the post-World War II era of rations and cans and boxed mixes and TV dinners, people had a predisposition for foods that were convenient, easily consumed, and often high in sugar. They didn’t want to spend all day in the kitchen. They didn’t care as much about splurging on higher quality ingredients.
Owing in part to a popular Dannon ad campaign from 1977 featuring older people saying the secret to their vitality was yogurt, Americans gradually began to regard it as a health food.
Dannon’s big breakthrough was fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, released in the late 1980s, which was packaged as single-serve cups, and had the candy-like strawberry and blueberry flavors people were used to. In 1992, yogurt was being marketed to kids in the form of products like sprinkle-topped Sprinklins, which Palantoni helped pioneer. He says sugar wasn’t as much of a concern for people back then. “The thought was, kids run around, they need sugar,” he says. “The basic concept is that we are giving kids milk, and it is high protein, so if there is sugar it is okay.”
Yogurt was marketed equally aggressively to women, because they were seen not only as the primary shoppers in the house, but also as diet-conscious. Advertisements showed women eating spoonfuls of yogurt at the spa bedecked in plush white robes, and ogling at a raspberry cheesecake before realizing excitedly that there was a raspberry cheesecake flavored yogurt. (Spoiler alert: It tastes nothing like raspberry cheesecake.)
As a result of all this, the yogurt business suddenly exploded. Everyone from kids to adults was eating it. Got Milk ads were in full swing, which only bolstered the appeal. In 1992, the yogurt market was valued at $1.135 billion.
Early 2000s: The Greek yogurt era
A single word can define American dietary preferences of the early 2000s: protein. It was the magical nutrient that could keep you both satisfied and trim. Meal replacement bars suggesting they had enough protein to keep you full all day were getting big. Muscle Milk was a body-building staple. It was in this protein-obsessed environment that Greek yogurt — a thick, strained version of the original — was able to not just succeed but completely dominate the yogurt market.
There had been attempts at introducing Greek to the broader market. Palantini says Dannon introduced a product called Mini Moos around 1990 that was meant to be a high-protein snack for kids, but it tanked because it was marketed as “fromage frais,” or fresh cheese. Fage, with its ultra-thick Greek yogurt, was gaining popularity, but it was pricey, and it had a tart taste. Americans still loved sugar — the protein shakes and protein bars were loaded with it.
The brand that was able to break through was Chobani, started by Hamdi Ulukaya, who came from a family of dairy farmers in Turkey. Chobani’s offerings were affordable and had less sugar, but still enough to satisfy American tastes. But most importantly, Chobani pushed the protein messaging hard, and became seen as a healthier choice than all the other sugar-laden yogurt brands.
Because of the protein angle, Greek yogurt prompted advertising to finally shift away from focusing exclusively on women. The containers were now shaped like six-packs, the branding was black (because masculinity!), and the marketing sold it as post-gym fuel for bros — a more all-natural version of protein powder, essentially.
Greek yogurt occupied 1 percent of the yogurt market in 2007; that jumped to 44 percent by 2013. “Once Greek became accessibly priced and broadly distributed and people understood Greek means high protein, they snapped it up,” says Peter McGuinness, president of Chobani. “There was this total Greekwashing,” with every major yogurt brand coming out with its own version of Greek yogurt.
Early 2010s: The artisanal yogurt era
Greek yogurt walked so all the other country-specific yogurts could run. Almost as soon as this once-foreign food became a hit, consumers started looking to see what else was out there. Suddenly, Icelandic, Australian, and French yogurts were crowding grocery aisles, marketing themselves as more curated choices for food lovers. This was at a time when food and restaurant culture was starting to feel more mainstream thanks to publications like Bon Appétit and Lucky Peach, and shows like No Reservations. Chefs like David Chang and Alice Waters were household names. People were traveling not just to see sights, but to eat specific dishes at famous restaurants.
“Greek yogurt did a lot of educating people about the importance of protein so we didn’t have to talk about those things,” says John Heath, the chief innovation officer at Icelandic Provisions. “We were focused on this X factor of having a story. Creating a premium product for someone who has a bit more of a food IQ and an appreciation for where the food comes from.”
Icelandic yogurt, or skyr, was being sold alongside this Viking heritage of Iceland, and stories of heirloom yogurt cultures. In the 2010s, Iceland became a more popular place to travel and was ranked as home to some of the world’s happiest people. “This destination was aspirational,” Heath says.
Siggi Hilmarsson, who founded Siggi’s, another Icelandic-style yogurt, also marketed his product as more premium than Greek. But he decided to focus less on the narrative, and more on the lack of sugar — an ingredient that was vilified in the media. With a tagline that promised “more protein than sugar,” while still offering customers familiar flavors like blueberry and vanilla, from 2013 to 2019, Siggi’s quickly caught the attention of mainstream grocers, trainers, and doctors.
“The story was important,” he says. “But they were primarily buying into the narrative of, wow, I didn’t realize there was this much sugar in yogurt in America. This brand is telling me there is something better.”
Mid-2010s: The nondairy yogurt era
Nondairy yogurt has existed since the 1990s, but it was long associated with a chalky, unpleasant texture, bitter taste, and loads of additives. A few years ago, the tide started to turn in two key ways: First, nondairy milk was becoming standard in coffee shops and in fridges, as people increasingly believed that dairy was bad for the environment, and that lactose was upsetting their digestive systems.
Second, the nondairy yogurt market finally had options that mimicked the creamy texture of yogurt and the rich, full flavor. Anita’s Yogurt, started in 2013, offered yogurt made out of coconut milk. Kite Hill, founded in 2010, popularized almond milk yogurt. Liz Fisher started Lavva in 2018 after discovering that pili nuts became buttery and creamy once blended. Fisher and others started a movement toward branding their yogurt not as “nondairy” but as “plant-based” — shifting the focus away from what their yogurt didn’t have.
Most importantly, when it seemed like yogurt had been modified and flavored in every possible way, nondairy milk gave consumers even more choice, and even more permutations to try. For a lot of people, the appeal of nondairy wasn’t necessarily that they wanted to stop consuming milk products. They just wanted to try something new, and the environmental and health-angled marketing made that decision feel even better.
Fisher says Lavva’s sales are up 300 percent from last year. Brands like Chobani and Siggi’s have both released nondairy offerings. Still, Fisher adds, while health food grocers can’t get enough of nondairy yogurt, the category is still not growing all that much among larger retailers.
“They are focused on the percentage of the business that anchors the category, which is cow’s milk yogurt,” she says. As popular as nondairy yogurt may seem to be, it’s not a replacement. “Dairy yogurt is here to stay.”
2020: The high-fat yogurt era
With dairy still occupying the lion’s share of the market, there are plenty more innovations to be had. Previously, every brand of dairy yogurt was putting out low-fat or fat-free offerings, to track with the steady concern of Americans with fats. Now, with the rise of low-carb, high-fat diets like ketogenic, and increased awareness of the idea of good versus bad fats, yogurt companies are now leaning into fat.
There’s Siggi’s triple-cream yogurt, Iceland Provisions whole milk yogurt, Chobani Greek yogurt with almond butter, and Peak, a product whose 17 percent milk fat is displayed right on the package. It’s a full-circle moment: These companies are reclaiming the notion perpetuated so long ago by early companies like Dannon that yogurt could be an indulgence, and a legitimate replacement for dessert, while still being good for you.
Next in yogurt?
With yogurt occupying more and more shelf space in grocery stores — and tracking so closely with American diet habits — companies are constantly trying to figure out what’s going to be big in yogurt. Heath says Icelandic Provisions is making a big bet on cold brew, having recently released a coffee-flavored yogurt made with cold brew concentrate. Hilmarsson, meanwhile, believes the business will go the way of the Impossible Burger, and people will develop synthetic proteins that work in yogurt.
Palantini compares what has happened with American consumers and yogurt to what happened with wine. “Americans have a very limited receptivity of their palate to new flavors,” he says. But once given options, with different tastes and textures, “you will eventually develop your palate and it will get more sophisticated.” The variety in yogurt has made many people more adventurous eaters. As packed as the yogurt aisle seems, expect even more wide-ranging offerings in coming years. And that, he adds, is a good thing.
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