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Frozen or Greek, yogurt the go-to goodie of the moment

Suddenly, yogurt is everywhere. And while it still comes in its familiar guises as a frozen treat or refrigerated snack, there's a new self-serve delivery system. It's pricier, too, and some yogurts even carry a Greek passport. • The food that fueled granola-eating hippies in the 1970s and became a fat-free rage in the 1990s has transformed itself for new millennial noshers. It's self-serve and exotically fruity (lychee! pomegranate!). It has new names (Fage, Chobani, Oikos), and retains its healthy sheen, whether it deserves it or not.

Frozen yogurt franchises might just be the Curves of this decade. Remember not too long ago when every strip mall housed a Curves 30-minute fitness center? After explosive expansion, many have closed. Now, it's frozen yogurt shops we are seeing at every turn; new owners are hoping this trend has more longevity.

And beautiful places they are, with contemporary design flair and overflowing wells of yummy temptations to adorn the sweet-tart yogurt. Fruit, nuts, cereals and candy — lots of candy — are making Tampa Bay's yogurt palaces popular after-school destinations for moms and kids and teens with their own wheels.

They are packing WestShore Plaza's Pinkberry, a Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian favorite and one of the California franchises that kicked off the trend nationwide. You Say When Yogurt Shoppe is also at that mall and others are in Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg. International Plaza has Yogurbella. Two Yogurtology shops have opened, one in St. Petersburg and another in Tampa. An independent called Chill has cozied up near a Starbucks in South Tampa. And then there's My Yogurt Cafe on bustling Beach Drive in St. Petersburg, and Yogurt Mountain and Cali Yogurt in Clearwater. There are others, and you'll spy them as you drive around your town.

Matt & Tanya's FroYo Fresh in Westchase is almost the grandma of the bunch, having opened last August. Owner Tanya Rubin was in the ice cream game for nearly 20 years when she realized the trend for tangy frozen yogurt was heading east from California. A trip to Kansas City cemented her assessment when she saw people lined up for the icy treat in icy weather.

So she changed the name of the business and her emphasis from ice cream to yogurt, though she still sells the former. At 42 cents an ounce, the frozen yogurt has been a hit. That and the Gummi toppings.

The fro-yo mojo

The frozen yogurt of today is different from the TCBY variety that has been popular for years. For one, it's tart like actual yogurt (before the added sugar and fruit at the bottom) and a little less like ice cream. And it touts lots of health benefits, including probiotics, which aid digestion.

Many purveyors also sing yogurt's gluten-free praises, which is true but plays on our lack of understanding about food. Dairy products rarely contain gluten. It's found in wheat, among other things, which is a primary component of many cereals, so you can add gluten at the toppings bar if you reach for the granola or Froot Loops. There's always the homemade yogurt option.

The way most new-generation frozen yogurt shops work is that you go in, grab a cup, fill it with yogurt and then add the toppings. All by yourself. Then you put your homemade mountain of goodness on a scale and pay somewhere between 42 and 55 cents an ounce. You'll learn quickly that chunks of Snickers weigh more than a scoop of chopped peanuts.

The other thing you'll have to watch is the size of the cup. Some places only offer a 16-ounce cup, and though they can tell you to fill it up halfway, it's hard to resist the urge to go to the brim. Be wary or you'll have sticker shock at the scale.

I thought I was being judicious at the St. Petersburg Yogurtology, but a few too many mini peanut butter cups put my bill at nearly $6. It was delicious, but I'll be more careful next time.

That price point is a factor in how long the current frozen yogurt trend will last, says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for NPD in Chicago. The recession has hit consumers hard and they are looking for value, she says. If a mom with kids thinks a $15 after-school yogurt treat for the gang is worth it, then she'll return. The danger, Riggs warns, is that consumers don't like to be surprised by prices. At the self-serve yogurt shops, you don't know how much you owe until it's too late. You can't return the strawberries to the bin.

Nevertheless, frozen yogurt has high appeal to young women and affluent women, Riggs says.

"They do feel it's a healthier and lighter alternative," she says. "That's why McDonald's moved into the smoothie market."

Mom may be picking the healthier fruit toppings, but the kids are partial to the sweets. Yogurtology, Chill, and Matt & Tanya's FroYo report that Gummis and anything Reese's are the most popular toppings among children.

Frozen yogurt is a reasonable treat for someone watching calories; most contain just 20 to 30 per ounce. Many are fat-free and some are sugarless.

"It's a healthier option as opposed to ice cream," Chad Semans of Chill says. "And it's Florida. It's hot here."

Tanya Rubin's Kansas City reference notwithstanding, the weather may be another factor in the Tampa Bay yogurt shop explosion. Cold treats are just more appealing in warm weather, Riggs says.

The Greek system

Greek yogurt has gained popularity right alongside self-serve fro-yo. There are many brands to choose from at the grocery store now. Some, like Stonyfield's Oikos, are made by big market American manufacturers, while Fage is an Athens, Greece, company. Greek yogurt is thicker and more tangy than the American-developed yogurts and is usually higher in protein. It also contains those coveted probiotics, a word which is a mash-up of Greek and Latin meaning "for life."

While Greek yogurt can be more healthful, consumers need to make sure it actually is by looking at the labels. Some are loaded with sugars, as much as 20 grams, which is the equivalent of about 5 teaspoons of granulated sugar.

Nutrition experts recommend that you eat plain Greek yogurt and if you need it sweetened, add a bit of honey (not the candy) and fresh fruit that you have cut yourself. A scoop of cereal, such as Grape-Nuts, contributes fiber.

Greek yogurt had best watch out, though. CBS News reported last week that there's a new yogurt in town.

Icelandic yogurt is the new Greek yogurt, says Cynthia Sass, author of Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches. If you want to try Icelandic yogurt, Fresh Market carries Siggi's brand. It's not cheap, though, at $1.99 for a 5.3-ounce container.

Will Icelandic yogurt be coming to a frozen yogurt shop near us soon? Who knows, but while we wait, there are plenty of new tart taste treats to try. With or without Gummi bears.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

Frozen or Greek, yogurt the go-to goodie of the moment 05/17/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 17, 2011 7:20pm]
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