I love fresh, plain yogurt with no added sugar or extra thickeners like tapioca or pectin. I used to make my own dairy yogurt, but lately I’ve been trying non-dairy yogurts.
Cow’s milk contains lactose, or milk sugar, that the lactobacillus bacteria that turn milk into yogurt feed on during fermentation. Soy, almond, and coconut don’t naturally contain lots of sugar like milk does, so at least some sugar must be added for fermentation to work. For the resulting yogurt to be as sweet as dairy yogurt takes even more sugar.
Besides sugar, non-dairy yogurts need thickeners. Dairy milk solidifies on its own during the fermentation process, though most store-bought dairy yogurts contain extra thickeners like tapioca starch and gelatin anyway. Alternative milks must not set up well, since every non-dairy yogurt I’ve seen contains several different thickeners. No getting around it, dairy yogurt is a simpler product than non-dairy yogurt. It’s rather like trying to raise a loaf using wheat versus trying to make a gluten-free loaf– the latter is always going to be more iffy and complicated. And yet, sometimes it’s what you need.
Unsweetened non-dairy yogurt is hard to find, yet important for recipes where you don’t want the off flavors that some sweeteners can add. It’s also good when you just don’t want all that sugar. Wildwood makes an Unsweetened Plain Probiotic Soyogurt. As you would expect, it’s quite tart, lacking not only added sugar but the lactose that’s naturally found in milk. It has a yellowish color and a flavor that’s as tart as dairy yogurt but otherwise not that similar. I don’t enjoy it plain, but it’s good with fresh fruit or granola on top and in recipes. It has a looser, wetter texture than the other yogurts I tried, and I liked that, it was more like homemade dairy milk yogurt. Plus, since soy milk has much more protein than other alternative milks, this yogurt is much higher in protein than almond milk or coconut milk yogurt. (6/19/13 update: Wildwood Unsweetened Soyogurt has been discontinued according to my co-op, does anyone know of an alternative unsweetened non-dairy yogurt?).
I also enjoy Nancy’s Organic Cultured Soy yogurt. It has a shorter, more natural list of ingredients than many of the alternative yogurts. It’s sweetened with amazake (from brown rice), white grape juice, and agave. The additional sweetness makes for a yogurt that I enjoy straight out of the container. Of course the sweetener also makes it higher calorie, higher carb, and lower protein, cup for cup, compared with the Wildwood Unsweetened soy yogurt.
The Nancy’s is quite solid in the container because it uses agar-agar as its only thickener. I liked that simplicity and the fact that agar-agar is a traditional food. Because agar sets up so firmly, the Nancy’s takes a lot of stirring initially. It never becomes quite as smooth as some of the other yogurts I tested.
Amande Cultured Almond Milk is sweetened with pineapple and peach juice. Because of that, it has a bit of a fruity tang. It also, naturally, has an almond flavor. Almond milk is pretty thin, and Amande has three different ingredients to thicken it: rice starch, locust bean gum, and pectin. It’s solid in the container but stirs up to a yogurt-y consistency. (6/19/13 My co-op has been having supply problems with this for months, I hope that resolves soon. Meanwhile I’ve picked up some Almond Dream yogurt; tasty, but has ingredients I try to avoid like cane sugar and cornstarch. 12/16/13: Cascade Fresh is having continuing production problems with Amande and it is still not available.)
So Delicious Coconut Milk Yogurt has a bright white color and a mild, moderately coconut-y flavor. It was by far the creamiest of the four yogurts I tried, the only one with a texture comparable to dairy yogurt. It’s also the only one of the four that uses cane sugar (evaporated cane juice). Coconut has a lot of saturated fat, and half of the calories in this yogurt are from fat, mostly saturated fat.
You can argue about the saturated fat in coconut and whether it’s healthy (see my article on the tropical oils) but I can’t imagine that having half the calories in this yogurt from mostly saturated fat, and probably a lot of the rest from cane sugar, is a particularly good nutritional profile. This could be a really useful yogurt for some recipes, though, or for when you want a yogurt with a really creamy mouthfeel.
12/16/13 update: after tasting all of these non-dairy yogurts and comparing nutritional values, I settled on the Wildwood soy yogurt, but it has been discontinued and now the Amande is also unavailable. The coconut yogurt is good but not nutritious enough for me to eat regularly. So that leaves me with Nancy’s Soy Yogurt, and it’s what I’m buying now.
What’s your favorite non-dairy yogurt?