Fermented foods have been around for centuries and first consumed by Asians, together with their tofu and miso. Historians credit nomadic herdsmen in Central Asia for beginning the whole yogurt craze, probably around 6000 BC, After they milked their animals, they kept the milk in containers made from animal stomachs, which tended to cause curdling and fermentation. After a long day, what went in as milk turned into a custardy food as it sloshed around in the containers. And there it was– instant yogurt. Before cattle were domesticated, other herded animals, such as sheep and goats, supplied the basis for the majority of dairy products.
The term yogurt originated in Turkey, where the practice of fermenting milk caught on in a big way. Recorded history tells us that Genghis Khan, leader of the Mongol Empire, and his armies lived on yogurt. (So for all you guys out there who think yogurt is for sissies, think again.) The first references to yogurt are in Turkish writings during the 11th century, but it is believed that yogurt was consumed with honey since the first Bible times. Other nations seasoned it with seeds and spices, appreciating its smooth creamy texture. There are as many versions as there are states, and its popularity spread long before its health benefits were totally understood. Middle Eastern countries used yogurt in many dishes centuries before it found its way to Western Europe.
Because yogurt comprises good bacteria, it was considered to possess curative powers particularly for intestinal and digestive abnormalities. Francis I, a potent late fifteenth century French monarch, supposedly was relieved of his chronic diarrhea by a physician who prescribed a daily serving of yogurt, and word soon spread throughout Western Europe.
In the nation of India, a similar version named da-hi is a popular accompaniment to native hot entrees. Frequently made from yak or water buffalo milk, it is also consumed in Nepal and Tibet and considered a staple of the simple diets. Iranians love yogurt as a side dish, often blended with cucumbers and other vegetables, and a popular substitute for sour cream. Lassi and kefir are other kinds of yogurt in a liquid form among Indian and Middle Eastern cultures. Americans still prefer their own versions of yogurt and seldom venture out of the comfort zone.
Turkish immigrants brought their beloved yogurt to North America in the 1700s but it didn’t gain much popularity before the mid-1940s. Probably not. Virtually confined to big cities and ethnic communities on the East Coast, it surely would not have been a big hit on the frontier, either.
By the early 20th century, it was seen strictly as a”health food” and consumed by people who had digestive challenges. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg served it every day at his Battle Creek Sanitarium, where people flocked to experience his cures eating a restricted diet. Due to the lactobacillus component, it encouraged healthful probiotics in the intestines and stomach, and boosted digestive enzymes. Presumably the first commercial yogurt business, a little mom and pop business named Columbo yogurt set up shop on the East Coast in 1929.
About the same time that Americans were noshing the creamy foodstuff as a”health” food, a guy named Isaac Carasso started commercial production in Barcelona, Spain. He named his company Danone, after his son Daniel. When the family arrived in New York, they started their business in the Bronx and re-named the company Dannon. As it gradually became mainstream, no longer seen as just a faddist food for stomach ailments, they took over a small yogurt mill in New York and the rest is history. From the late 1940s it was foreign to the majority of Americans, so the Dannon folks added fruit, which made the sour flavor a bit more palettable. As it began to blossom in the fifties, other companies jumped on the bandwagon, and Hollywood celebrities ate it for energy and as a low calorie meal. Today Dannon markets their yogurts worldwide. The founder’s son Daniel lived to the ripe old age of 103, attributing his longevity to a lot of yogurt.
In recent years, Greek yogurt has made a big impact, due to its thicker and richer consistency, nosing out lower fat and more watery predecessors. New on the scene are varieties claiming super-sized amounts of live probiotics, in already-overcrowded dairy pieces, hoping to lure customers who want to boost their gut bacteria.
Of course, yogurt is now commonplace in our modern diet and loved in its original condition as well as a frozen treat. It is estimated that 75% of adults consume it in some form weekly. But beware the additives and higher sugar content to accommodate the American palette, which would certainly knock down it on the healthy foods scale. Eat it for enjoyment, but don’t delude yourself that it’s a bona fide”health food.” Most yogurts are basically ice cream with a little bacteria thrown in.