Washingtonians are eating up frozen yogurt this season, but what exactly makes it yogurt and how to measure the health claims being made about it remain up for discussion.
The low-fat alternative to ice cream is gaining new attention thanks to research on probiotics, the live cultures that give yogurt a tangy flavor.
A redesigned marketing concept that makes frozen yogurt cool to eat is aiding its popularity. The first-generation frozen yogurt, more closely resembling ice cream, has been stripped of most sugar. Now it tastes like plain, unsweetened yogurt, only frozen, and it's being sold out of artsy, modern venues.
But while the health buzz focuses on the nutritional benefits of yogurt cultures, no federal standards regulate content for the ingredient gaining so much attention from health-conscious fans of the cold treat.
Purveyors of a berry or granola-studded cup of the frozen yogurt may say their product contains live and active cultures to arm the gastrointestinal tracts with immune-building good bacteria. But with no uniform standard in place to require a certain concentration of cultures in frozen yogurt, it's up to individual producers to make sure their products are as healthy as they claim.
Some frozen-yogurt makers test their yogurt in a laboratory and some seek voluntary certification from the private National Yogurt Association, said John Allan, manager for regulatory and international affairs.
"Consumers are becoming more and more aware of the importance and benefits of having live and active cultures in yogurt products," Mr. Allan said. He called it a renaissance of yogurt and added the seal both substantiates shop owners' health claims and reassures consumers of the yogurt's bacterial content.
Currently, no local shop holds NYA certification, and nationwide, only Pinkberry, Red Mango and Berry Chill - leaders in the frozen yogurt trend based in California, New York and Chicago - are certified. Mr. Allan said he has received nearly daily calls in the past year from people seeking information on getting their frozen yogurt shops certified, and consumers call him, too.
"We get calls weekly from consumers that are wondering where they can buy yogurts that have the seal, or they're wondering why their particular favorite brand of yogurt doesn't have the seal," he said.
NYA certification acts as the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the yogurt industry, said Pinkberry Spokeswoman Heather Wilson.
"It shows there are no questions for what we have in it," she said. "It's an industry standard and we felt it was worthwhile to pursue it, and it put aside all those questions."
Two of the newest entrants to the frozen yogurt market locally say though not yet certified, they plan to seek NYA approval in the near future. Nicolas Jammet , one of three owners of Sweet Green, which opened in Georgetown last August, said he's already taken the first step toward the frozen yogurt recipe he calls "sweet flow": an independent, U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved laboratory analysis.
He said the report showed his yogurt surpasses NYA standards.
"Before we opened, we took a lot of time in a test kitchen to test the perfect ratio for our sweet flow," said Mr. Jammet, 23. "People in D.C. are very health minded, very nutrition minded, and I think we hit the nail on the head."
Business at Tangysweet, which opened June 6 in Dupont Circle, has started strong - selling to about 1,000 customers a day - and owner Aaron Gordon said once the opening craze settles, he plans to begin seeking the certification as well.
"I'm not quite sure if we're there yet, but we're certainly going to try to get there," he said. "You do want to have enough yogurt cultures to be considered by the NYA as a complete yogurt. It's certainly something to live up to."
TCBY's frozen yogurt includes seven different cultures (NYA testing only considers two for certification), and TCBY Director of Marketing Steve Willies said the company is considering pursuing independent certification for its 1,000 stores across the country. Yogen Fruz, a Toronto-based company with plans to begin expanding into the Washington market as early as this year, does not certify their yogurt, either, but President Aaron Serruya said he may pursue it if customers demand it. In the meantime, he said, company tests show Yogen Fruz's frozen yogurt contains 70 million cultures per ounce.