The First Health Food

The word yogurt originated in Turkey, where the practice of fermenting milk caught on in a big way. Recorded history tells us that Genghis Khan, leader of the Mongol Empire, and his armies lived on yogurt. (So for all you men out there who think yogurt is for sissies, think again.) The first references to yogurt are in Turkish writings during the 11th century, but it is believed that yogurt was eaten with honey since the early Bible times. Other countries seasoned it with spices and seeds, enjoying its smooth creamy texture. There are as many versions as there are countries, and its popularity spread long before its health benefits were totally understood. Middle Eastern countries used yogurt in many dishes centuries before it found its way to Western Europe.

Because yogurt contains good bacteria, it was believed to have curative powers especially for digestive and intestinal abnormalities. Francis I, a powerful late fifteenth century French monarch, purportedly was relieved of his chronic diarrhea by a physician who prescribed a daily helping of yogurt, and word soon spread throughout Western Europe.

In the country of India, a similar version called da-hi is a popular accompaniment to native spicy entrees. Frequently made from yak or water buffalo milk, it is also consumed in Nepal and Tibet and considered a staple of their simple diets. Iranians love yogurt as a side dish, often combined with cucumbers and other vegetables, and a popular substitute for sour cream. Lassi and kefir are other forms of yogurt in a liquid form among Indian and Middle Eastern cultures. Americans still prefer their own versions of yogurt and rarely venture out of their comfort zone. They have welcomed it into their diets, frequently as a substitute for vegetables oils, salad dressings, sour cream and mayonnaise.

Turkish immigrants brought their beloved yogurt to North America in the 1700s but it didn’t gain much popularity until the mid-1940s. Did Thomas Jefferson serve yogurt at state dinners? Probably not. Virtually confined to major cities and ethnic communities on the East Coast, it certainly would not have been a big hit out on the frontier, either.

By the early 20th century, it was viewed strictly as a “health food” and consumed by those who had digestive challenges. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg served it daily at his Battle Creek Sanitarium, where people flocked to experience his cures eating a restricted diet. Because of the lactobacillus component, it promoted healthy probiotics in the intestines and stomach, and boosted digestive enzymes. Presumably the first commercial yogurt enterprise, a small mom and pop business called Columbo yogurt set up shop on the East Coast in 1929.