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Eat To Live: Yogurt gets functional

By
JULIA WATSON, UPI Senior Editor

LE BUGUE, France, Aug. 18 (UPI) -- To an American, dairy cabinets in French supermarkets would come as something of a surprise. Milk is either whole or "half-cream." There's none with added vitamins or nutrients. And despite dessert and pastry recipes that call for Chantilly cream, there isn't a French equivalent of American Heavy Whipping Cream.

You just can't get quite the same thick whip from the cream the French offer. For thickness you have to go for their crème fraiche, an opened carton of which you can hold upside down for hours without endangering the heirloom Aubusson carpet. Yet once you beat it, it turns into soup.

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But for serious cool cabinet choice in any country across Europe, look no further than the yogurt selection.

There was a time -- which still exists in isolated desert areas in Turkey and the surrounding "Stan" republics over the mountains -- when yogurt was the chief source of dairy goodness.

Milk couldn't easily be kept fresh, so it was turned into longer-lasting yogurt. In markets in eastern Turkey, you can smell the yogurt sellers before you reach them. The milk comes from goats and the finished product is scooped in great spoonfuls from the reeking animals' skins in which it has been transported.

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Across Europe, yogurt has been taken to health-giving heights that would astonish the nomads of the barren steppes. It's not just fruit flavored, or boasting a fuller or lesser fat content. It has been turned into one of the mainstays of the fortified food system, becoming almost a medicine.

If someone says "probiotics" (the new food buzzword indicating the presence of healthy living microorganisms that can help protect the digestive system, in particular from yeast infection or IBS caused by courses of antibiotics), those in the know think yogurt.

The French have been chugging down Danone's Activa -- introduced into the United States in February this year -- since 1987. The makers say that eaten daily for two weeks, the probiotic yogurt can regulate the digestive system by helping to reduce the transit time of food passing through the intestines by up to 40 percent.

One brand popular in Spain contains breast milk bacteria.

Along with spoonable yogurts of varying thicknesses in every country, there are drinkable yogurts, soft-cheese-like yogurts, fermented kefir-type yogurts of the sort solid Russian babushkas have sworn by as a general cure-all for centuries. Some contain ingredients not normally associated with what is plugged in the United States as a dessert, like carrots, cucumber and oats.

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Now, some yogurts include agents that have jobs other than tickling the taste buds or persuading consumers they can enjoy something sweet without swallowing too many calories. One contains Tonalin, a fat-reducing agent. Some contain Omega-3 to target cholesterol reduction. Yet more offer energy-boosting and relaxing properties. And others boast an antioxidant quality or offer the beneficial Bifidus active that helps develop flora in the gut.

You don't have to buy a functional probiotic or nutraceutical yogurt to get health benefits. Plain simple yogurt is made by culturing cream and milk or milk alone with live and active cultures, generally Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. By metabolizing with some of the lactose in the milk to make lactic acid, the milk is thickened into yogurt.

But the prime yogurt makers of Europe are looking across the Atlantic to see how the U.S. responds to Danone's Activa. Who know, if enough is eaten, maybe next we'll see the breast milk bacteria variety on the supermarket shelves.

If a recipe calls for cream in the cooking, you can generally replace it with yogurt, just so long as -- if the dish comes to the boil which will cause the yogurt to separate -- you hold back a good spoonful to stir back into the dish to make it reincorporate, or the dish is roux-based (a flour and butter stabilizing mix). Apply the following general principle to create an appetizer and a dessert.

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--1 large carton plain yogurt

--Place a sieve over a bowl, line it with a paper towel and dump the yogurt in.

--Leave it to drain until the yogurt comes away from the paper with ease when you peel away a corner, at least 2-3 hours, or overnight.

For an appetizer

--Grate a washed and unpeeled cucumber, squeeze some of its juices away and stir into the yogurt until completely incorporated.

--Add salt to taste, some finely chopped mint leaves, and a squeeze of garlic and serve with warmed pita bread.

For a dessert mousse

--Beat 2 egg whites.

--Beat the yogurt till smooth, then add ¼ cup sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and beat until shiny.

--Fold in the egg whites.

--Serve within 2 hours of making with strawberries or other soft fruit.

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