Top taste ... Jalna's biodynamic natural yoghurt wins over the panel.
Yoghurt, a Turkish word, was a traditional food among specific ethnic groups for millenniums until a Nobel prize-winning scientist, Ilya Mechnikov, connected fermented milks with longevity in the early 20th century.
The possibility that this tart-tasting, cultured, traditionally fermented milk product could prolong life was irresistible to people who had never before included yoghurt in their diet.
Despite Mechnikov's fermented-food theory being discredited, people continued to eat it as the food industry developed milder fruit-based versions in the 1920s.
Taste test ... judges (from left) Somer Sivrioglu, Alex Herbert, Pierre Issa and Sonia Cousins. Photo: Steven Siewert
Yoghurt went mainstream in the '60s as the Swiss improved flavours and the French created a creamy, stirred product.
Today it is promoted as a healthy, convenient food. On average, Australians eat seven kilograms a year.
TASTE TEST: Panel rates the top 14 natural yoghurts
Dairy Australia divides yoghurt production into natural or unsweetened, flavoured, fruit and probiotic, which have bacteria such as acidophilus, bifidobacterium and casei (ABC).
Yoghurts with added fruit, flavour or sweetener will have more kilojoules but they will have just as many good bacteria as a natural yoghurt. And a hand-made product is not necessarily better for you than a factory-produced yoghurt, unless it has added probiotic bacteria.
Carole Willman from Cheeselinks, a private company which provides starter cultures for yoghurt manufacturers, says, "There is no difference in bacteria between a commercial, mass-produced yoghurt and a farmhouse, hand-made yoghurt unless they set their milk at a lower temperature than the usual 45 degrees.
''The lower the temperature, the longer it takes to set and the more runny it will be - but more bacteria will grow."
Flavour is the key difference in yoghurts, though there are ethical aspects to buying farmhouse yoghurts from small-herd, organic or biodynamic milks.
Good Living bought 14 natural, non-sweetened, unflavoured yoghurts at supermarkets and grocery stores to do a blind taste test of their flavours.
The Ski brand wasn't included as it doesn't do a natural yoghurt.
According to Retail World magazine, Ski (Fonterra) and Yoplait (National Foods) dominate the yoghurt market with about 21 per cent each. Vaalia and Nestle have 9.3 per cent and 9.9 per cent respectively and Jalna has 8.4 per cent. Other than Pauls, which has 1.9 per cent, the rest of the market is 25 per cent other brands. The private labels or supermarket-owned brands have 3.2 per cent of the market.
The yoghurts were assessed for appearance, texture, mouth-feel, balance and finish by a panel consisting of the chef and co-owner of Bird Cow Fish restaurant, Alex Herbert; the chef and co-owner of Efendy, Somer Sivrioglu; a yoghurt-maker from Pepe Saya, Pierre Issa; and a dairy judge from GPO Cheese & Wine Room, Sonia Cousins.
Turkish-born Sivrioglu grew up eating tart, hand-made yoghurt until he was 10. "My grandmother used to go to my uncle's place to buy from the yoghurt man, who used to visit my uncle's suburb, because she liked his yoghurt."
Sivrioglu says his palate has changed since he's been in Australia. "In Turkey, the yoghurt is thinner-bodied and has more acid. I didn't like creamy, full-textured yoghurt before I came here." Greek-style, as he calls these full-bodied yoghurts, which traditionally are strained to remove the whey, are the latest yoghurt trend in the US.
Issa's definition of a good yoghurt is one "that hits you right at the back of the jaw with the acid and deafens you with a ping". Herbert says her customers look for a "breakfast yoghurt with body that is clean and not too creamy but most people don't want full-on acid".
The panel looked for a balance of tart and sweet, smooth not too creamy, full-bodied but not thick, firm or stiff and a clean, refreshing lingering aftertaste. The panel also was looking for milk flavours and was disappointed these were missing in most yoghurts tasted.
Cousins, who regards a green-apple tinge in the whey and a tart bite to the taste as the mark of a good yoghurt, says she could see why the consumer is confused.
"Some of these yoghurts are leaning towards desserts with a sweetness and a glossiness. Some have a lumpy, hippie, natural '70s look. I'm amazed at the variation."
Sivrioglu was also taken aback at the diversity of styles he sampled, comparing it with Turkey's yoghurt-eating market. "In Turkey today there aren't as many brands or as many different styles."
Herbert says, "It's a see-saw, a battle between a confection and a health food. Someone thought yoghurt could have wider appeal and that there are different markets. One market is the health-conscious, the other is a dairy product sweetened to appeal."
The panel taste-tested 14 natural yogurts and rated them in this order:
1 Jalna BioDynamic Organic Whole Milk $4.99/500g
2 Evia Authentic Greek Recipe Natural $6.99/700g
3 Coles Natural Set $2.99/500g
4 Pauls Low Fat All Natural $3.55/500g
5 Barambah Organics All Natural European style $5.99/500g
6 Margaret River Dairy Company Creamy Pot Set $3.99/500g
7 Bornhoffen Acidophilis The Authentic Natural $5.69/1kg
8 Country Valley Lush Traditional Handmade Natural $6.99/500g
9 Farmers Union Natural European style $4.99/1kg
10 Gippsland Natural Organic $5.99/1kg
11 Five:am Organic Greek style $6.99/600g
and tied for equal …
12 Marrook Farm Biodynamic Full Cream Mild $3.99/500g
13 YoPlait Yoplus Natural $5.54/1kg
14 B-d Farm Paris Creek Organic Biodynamic Swiss Style Culture $5.29/500g
Jalna a natural winner
The tasting panel's winner was Jalna Biodynamic Organic Whole Milk, a tub set yoghurt. Somer Sivrioglu, from Efendy restaurant, said it "… looks and feels natural, punchy, enough acid but still milky".
Pierre Issa, of Pepe Saya, voted for it because it was "full-bodied and in-between pot set and stirred with a lingering aftertaste". Alex Herbert liked its "good mouthfeel, good balance between natural milk sweetness and acid".
Runners up were Evia Yoghurt Authentic Greek Recipe Natural, Coles Natural Set Yoghurt and Pauls All Natural Set in the Tub with just a point separating them.
Evia got the thumbs up from Sivrioglu for being "creamy and velvety then changing to an acid aftertaste", Herbert liked its "acid rising and sweet finish" though Sonia Cousins from GPO Cheese and Wine Room didn't agree: "like licking a wet cow!"
Coles Natural Set won praise for its "silky texture" (Issa) and "clean tangy finish" (Cousins). Pauls won points from Sivrioglu mainly because of its balance.