Yogurt is impressively old: it dates back to the 3rd millennium B.C., when goatherds in what is now Turkey fermented milk in sheep-skin bags to conserve it. Today, it is consumed worldwide, with a historical prevalence in the Western world but a fast-growing foothold in emerging markets. Over the five millenniums of its history, yogurt has known different manufacturing techniques, an almost infinite variety of flavours and packaging, and a popularity which appears inexhaustible. What is there left to invent and explore? Here is a peek at the past, the present and the future of one of humanity’s oldest and widely-shared foods.
Anatolian shepherds and King François I: the origins of yogurt
The oldest writings mentioning yogurt are those of Pliny the Elder, who lived in the 1st century A.D. and wrote about ancient barbarous nations that knew how “to thicken the milk into a substance with an agreeable acidity.” “Thickening” was actually used three millenniums before Pliny’s time by Anatolian goatherds to conserve their milk: they would dry it in the sun and transport it in sheep- or goat-skin bags. It is believed that the milk fermented spontaneously when in contact with the bacteria contained in the skin. The result was already called “yogurt”, a word derived from a Turkish verb that means “to be curdled or coagulated; to thicken.”
Yogurt was born in Anatolia, but there are also records of it in India and Iran around 500 B.C.
Persian traditions holding that “Abraham owed his fecundity and longevity to the regular ingestion of yogurt.” And it was in fact the health argument that introduced yogurt into the Western world, in France in 1542, under the reign of François I. The king was suffering from severe diarrhoea and doctors could offer no cure. Suleiman the Magnificent, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and an ally of the throne of France, sent a doctor who cured the king with yogurt: the news of the benefits of this unknown food started to spread in France and in Europe. But it was really the 20th century that brought yogurt into our daily diets. In the early years of the century, when yogurt was consumed in parts of the Russian Empire, Central and South-Eastern Europe and Western Asia, Stamen Grigorov, a Bulgarian medical student, identified the bacteria present in his country’s yoghurt: Lactobacillus. In Paris, at the Institut Pasteur, Russian Nobel laureate Elie Metchnikoff used his work to establish that Lactobacillus was responsible for the longevity of Bulgarian peasants – and thus actively popularised yogurt in Western Europe.
This paved the way for the industrialisation of yogurt, which was carried out by Isaac Carasso, the founder of Danone, in Spain in 1919. At the time, he used a modernised technique that still relied on the same principle used by the nomadic shepherds of Anatolia: bacterial fermentation of milk. A mere ten years later, his son Daniel would take the family company across the Pyrenees and settle it in France via La Société Parisienne du Yoghurt. »
Today, we make yogurt by pasteurising milk, enriching it with powder milk to boost its protein and calcium content, then heating it to 43°C and adding two types of bacteria: Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus. The variety of flavours and packaging we are familiar with were also introduced throughout the 20th century, with added fruit jam in 1933 (patented in Poland), fruit yogurts in 1937, cardboard pots in the 1950s and blended yogurt in 1963. We should note here that yogurt was first introduced in the United States in the early 20th century in the form of tablets for those with digestive intolerance, specifically targeting people who were looking for a better health… and a longer life.
The yogurt of the future
Today, even though innovation never stops and dozens of new products are designed every year, yogurt has become a staple foodstuff, reliable and well-known, which no longer changes dramatically. Some things do change – consumers’ habits and the penetration of yogurt in entirely new markets. In the Western world, it is usually sweet and eaten at breakfast or as a dessert, while it is savoury and a part of cooked dishes in the countries of the Persian Gulf, in Turkey and in Greece. This means there are entire areas of the world where yogurt is still not very common.
In the United States, which Danone CEO Franck Riboud calls an “emerging market” for yogurt, it is said to be the “food trend of the decade.”
Americans still eat six times less yogurt than the French (who consume a record 33kg per head per year, surpassed only by the Germans), but their consumption has increased more than 400% over the past thirty years. In 1980, yoghurt was a $300 million market; by 2005, it had grown to $3.5 billion. It has shown 10% growth each year since 2008. The same trend can be observed all over the world: in China, where Danone introduced its yogurts in 1990, yogurt consumption has increased from 0.3kg per head per year to 2kg, and consumption increased by 13% between 2002 and 2004; the expected rate of growth in the years to come is 31%. In the UK, consumption has increased by 26% over the last ten years. Elsewhere, in South Korea, in Morocco and in Australia, yogurt is becoming more and more popular.
But aside from gaining new market share in countries that are practically just discovering it, what new things can we expect to see from yogurt? Quite a few, actually. Some say that yogurt may soon become a vaccine: a scientist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine is currently developing an edible vaccine thanks to yogurt and cheese bacteria which will carry the vaccine all the way to the intestine, where the immune system is actually supposed to meet the pathogens and fight them. Others imagine yogurt will not need packaging anymore: it will be wrapped in an edible “skin”, just like the skin of the fruit that you simply wash before eating it. This edible packaging already exists and might just make its way onto our supermarket shelves in the very near future. It opens up a world of possibilities for researchers and designers, since it can be flavoured and textured. But it will also radically solve the problem of over-packaging, producing an environmental impact that is likely to be much, much lower.
And then, there are innovations that are less “spectacular” but absolutely key to one of yoghurt’s “missions”: providing better health.
In emerging markets, tailoring the products to the tastes and needs of consumers will keep helping these people get the proteins and vitamins they need (notably thanks to enriched yogurts), while allowing them to actually enjoy what is good for them. And finally, in the field of medical nutrition, R&D still has a lot to bring to the fight against modern diseases, and particularly age-related ones. The story of yogurt is not quite over yet.