- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

HAGATNA, Gaum (AP) - For all the positive health benefits associated with yogurt, it seems that this ancient food deserves a more prominent role in the daily diets of Americans and Guamanians alike.

Its origins can be traced to 2000 B.C., when Middle East travelers carried it in animal skins. Today, this semi-solid, sour-ish food prepared from milk and fermented with live bacteria isn’t that hard to enjoy. It’s loaded with nutrients, and numerous studies link yogurt consumption with digestive benefits, an enhanced immune system, reduced blood cholesterol and lowered risk of diabetes.

Moreover, says University of Guam associate professor and certified food scientist Jian Yang, yogurt is easy enough to make at home with a little bit of practice.

“I feel that commercial yogurt is too expensive. I have three kids, so eating commercial yogurt every day, it costs a lot,” he says. “You have to eat yogurt continuously to maintain the health benefits. Self-made yogurt is less than 50 percent of the store price.”

Yang offered a yogurt workshop at UOG on Dec. 4, hoping to spread awareness about yogurt’s benefits while teaching people how to create the creamy superfood at home. Extension associate Clarissa Barcinas and research associate Stephanie Motroni, who practiced yogurt-making with Yang in the days before, assisted in the class.

The handful of students who attended the four-hour workshop learned what bacteria yogurt contains, what makes yogurt thick or thin, how to safely prepare yogurt from scratch and how to add flavors.

Begins with bacteria

Yogurt must contain at least two starter cultures (live bacteria) - Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus - in order to be labeled as yogurt under U.S. law. Many commercial yogurts also include other beneficial bacteria. Provided they are live and active, they should provide the probiotic health benefits as advertised, when consumed regularly and in sufficient amounts.

The easiest way to make a basic yogurt requires just two ingredients: a quart of store-bought milk and a quarter-cup of plain yogurt (making sure the label indicates a live culture). This makes a runny, mildly tart yogurt that would make a healthy drink. Add some honey or fruit juice, and you’ll have a product as good as any yogurt drink on the market.

But commercially, yogurts are made by heating, then cooling milk, adding a starter culture and incubating the yogurt at 110 degrees Fahrenheit, anywhere from six to 10 hours.

These starter cultures are available in freeze-dried forms (available by mail order on Amazon.com), from commercial, unflavored yogurts or from a previous batch of fresh yogurt.

Yogurt is usually made from cow’s milk, though other animal milk from goats and sheep are used. It’s possible to make yogurt from non-dairy milks such as soy, coconut, almond and cashew, though the process used is different from animal milk yogurt.

When these cultures are added to milk and kept at a specific temperature for several hours, the bacteria multiply and chemically change the milk, producing the characteristic flavor and textures associated with yogurt.

Other optional ingredients such as milk powder, stabilizers and sweeteners are often added to increase flavor appeal to a wider audience. Desired tartness and textures are a result of controlling the types of bacteria used, the length of fermentation, the amount of additives and the type of milk used, says Yang.

Different methods create different yogurt products such as Greek yogurt, yogurt smoothies, yogurt drinks and flavored yogurts - the same you’d see on your grocer’s shelves.

“I learned how easy it is to make. It’s better for me in terms of being in control of what goes in my yogurt,” says Barcinas, who eats yogurt three times a week. “If I had more time, I’d like to see how local fruits could be incorporated, such as sour sop, mango, papaya and even the local mulberry.”

Yang says that people who take their yogurt seriously will invest in a yogurt maker, which regulates temperature during the crucial fermentation period.

And there’s no limit on how to flavor the finished product, he says, though he prefers a simple drizzle of honey for his family’s tastes.

“The first step is making it at home, use local ingredients,” says Yang. “Then maybe someone will be interested in making a commercial yogurt on Guam. If they do, we can help.”

More to come

Jian Yang, along with the staff and faculty at the UOG Cooperative Extension Service and College of Natural and Applied Sciences, would like to explore making yogurt with non-dairy milks sometime in January.

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