DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Americans are sold on yogurt. Sales have shot up nearly 40 percent over the past five years. But there is this - most yogurts on the shelf contain a lot of sugar at a time when many of us are trying to tame that sweet tooth. This made NPR's Allison Aubrey curious about the future of yogurt.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Daniel Carasso was the son of the man who founded Dannon yogurt. And when he immigrated to New York from France in the early 1940s, his idea was to sell Americans on the kind of creamy, tart yogurt that he'd grown up with.
MICHAEL NEUWIRTH: Most Americans had never tasted yogurt. America had, at that point, really been a milk drinking country. And the tart taste was totally unfamiliar to Americans. And that was really the biggest hurdle.
AUBREY: That's Michael Neuwirth, Dannon's PR director and unofficial historian. He says, at first, business was slow. But then came an idea. Why not add a sugary fruit puree to the bottom of each cup?
NEUWIRTH: So then it sweetened the taste, and it made it more palatable to Americans.
AUBREY: From this point, the business took off. Carasso and his partners went from selling a few hundred pots of yogurt a day to...
NEUWIRTH: Upwards of 50,000 cups a day.
AUBREY: And Neuwirth says our cultural preference for sweet hasn't changed much.
NEUWIRTH: The vast majority of yogurt that we make and that Americans buy today is sweetened, and we gravitate towards them.
AUBREY: Go to the yogurt aisle and it's like a dessert menu, cocktail list and candy store all in one. There's coconut cream pie and Margarita-flavored yogurts, even yogurts that taste like jelly beans and M&Ms. It's gotten to the point where some yogurt makers are saying enough is enough. It's time to get back to savory yogurts.
JOHN FOUT: I think in most places where the yogurt culture started out when you're talking, you know, Middle East, India - where, you know, yogurt has its longest routes, everybody eats yogurt savory.
AUBREY: That's John Fout. He actually gave up his career as a Wall Street trader to start his own yogurt company - Sohha Savory Yogurt.
FOUT: You know what? The thing we're trying to do by putting savory in our name and saying that yogurt doesn't have to be sweet is to get people to try eating yogurt in other ways.
AUBREY: That's what he did several years back when he met and married a woman from Lebanon. He says as they were falling in love, he also fell for her Middle Eastern-style yogurt.
FOUT: I mean, it was a total revelation. I mean, when I was a kid, if you told me I was going to eat plain yogurt, I would have told you you're nuts.
AUBREY: But Fout was sold on the tartness and creaminess you get from making yogurt the traditional Lebanese way with just three ingredients.
FOUT: Milk, cultures and sea salt. That's it. It's delicious.
AUBREY: He's selling his yogurt in grocery stores, and he and his wife have a yogurt stand at Chelsea Market in New York. We arrived at lunchtime. It smells like a spice bazaar, and as customers come in, they're offered yogurt topped with olive oil infused with homemade spice blends.
FOUT: One is classic Middle Eastern spices - za'tar and sumac. You know, you get the bright citrusy flavor of sumac that matches with the tanginess of the yogurt. It's just really delicious to eat by itself or with crudites or some pita chips.
AUBREY: Another combination pairs the cool tang of yogurt with the heat of peppers.
FOUT: Finishing sea salts are really great to use too, you know, if you can get, like, a really nice jalapeno or habanero.
AUBREY: And he says customers love the novelty of it. Gene DePiro and Bridget Mullins have just wandered by.
GENE DEPIRO: I mean, I'd try anything once.
AUBREY: Bridget digs in first.
BRIDGET MULLINS: Oh, it's so good. It's really smooth. It has, like, a really luscious consistency.
AUBREY: But her friend Gene...
DEPIRO: Not my style of yogurt. Like, y'all need some - like, eating, like, a Chobani, like, which has sugar in it.
AUBREY: But the tasting has won Bridget over.
MULLINS: Yeah, definitely. I always think of yogurt as more of a breakfast food or like a snack during the day. But I could see how this could be a really just fresh salad to eat for lunch.
AUBREY: And she may just be on to the latest trend. Here's Beth Bloom, who tracks the yogurt industry for Mintel.
BETH BLOOM: Definitely international influences are coming in. So we're seeing yogurt with cucumber mixed in, which could be compared to a tzatziki.
AUBREY: And there are new brands of yogurt-based dips and products inspired by Indian raita. It's still a small part of the market, but it's growing.
BLOOM: In the past year, there has been a pretty big jump in yogurt projects claiming to be lower sugar.
AUBREY: Nine percent of launches compared to just 4 percent the year before, which means sweet won't be going away anytime soon, but savory seems to have its foot in the refrigerator door. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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