Image: Whole Foods yogurt selection
Eric Risberg  /  AP
The yogurt section is shown at a Whole Foods Market in San Francisco.
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updated 5/27/2010 3:44:19 PM ET 2010-05-27T19:44:19

Every culture sees its share of trends. Even yogurt.

And as yogurt hipsters know, the days of fruit-on-the-bottom and pina colada-flavored puddings are so passe.

An explosion of yogurt options has given Americans bold new choices, from goat's milk to Greek-style to soy and even coconut milk yogurts.

And have you tried the Icelandic-style brands like siggi's? It's a stick-to-your-ribs product that Errol Schweizer, senior global grocery coordinator for Whole Foods Market, describes as "sort of like Greek yogurt for Vikings."

Yogurt's cultural transformation is most noticeable at upscale grocers. Atlanta copy editor Lauren Vogelbaum jokes that when a Whole Foods opened near her apartment a few years ago, "I was introduced to a new universe of yogurt."

But mainstream markets also have seen a change, as products once limited mostly to natural food stores — such as Greek-style strained yogurts and kefir (KEE-fer), a drinkable, fermented dairy product — have become widely available.

"There's been a big increase in the number of yogurts and the different cultures available," says Robert Garfield, senior vice president of public policy and international affairs for the National Yogurt Association, a nonprofit industry group based in McLean, Va.

Though the recession slowed yogurt sales in 2009, especially yogurt drinks, sales of both grew 32 percent between 2004 and 2009, reaching nearly $4.1 billion in sales, according to market research company Mintel.

Icelandic yogurts are dense nutrient-packed products that are so thoroughly strained they can be classified as soft cheeses. Two brands are sold in the United States — Skyr.is, imported from Iceland, and siggi's, made in America by Siggi Hilmarsson, an immigrant from Iceland.

The Skyr.is brand, available exclusively at Whole Foods, is currently available on the East Coast, as well as cities including Denver and Seattle, with plans to roll out the product in other regions this year. The brand is "just growing bigger and bigger," says Blair Gordon, president of E&B's Natural Way company, which is based in Frederick, Md., and imports Skyr.is.

Hilmarsson's yogurt ventures began about six years ago in New York during his first Christmas away from home. In an effort to capture a taste of home, he decided to make strained yogurt following his grandmother's recipe.

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The sort of temperature control needed to produce yogurt is tough in a New York apartment, but he persevered, moving up to a professional test kitchen and eventually creating a product that caught the attention of local stores.

Today, siggi's is available nationally at Whole Foods and other chains, such as Wegmans.

Yogurt, which is made by adding bacterial cultures to milk, has long been recognized as a healthy food. (In this case, the bacteria are good for you, aiding digestion, among other things.) But sweet-toothed Americans have balked at the tangy taste of the real thing. For years, American "yogurt" was more pudding than culture.

"The issue for Americans is getting used to the natural fermented flavor of the product," Garfield says.

These days the big sellers are low-fat and nonfat brands, and there's a move toward reduced sugar, he says.

A persistent issue with American yogurt has been whether you're getting a product containing live cultures. The National Yogurt Association issues a seal to products that have a specified amount of live and active cultures.

Some of the new products aren't cheap — siggi's, which comes in seven flavors, all nonfat — typically runs more than $2.50 for a 6-ounce carton. Many mainstream brands, even some organic varieties, sell for less than $1.

Hilmarsson notes that since his product is strained, producing a hearty yogurt that is thick and tart. He says you are getting more protein per ounce. He also pays a premium for milk from New York state farmers who don't use hormones or antibiotics, a cost that does get passed on.

Some people aren't ready for that much yogurt attitude.

Vogelbaum, who blogs about food and books at the website "Do Not Feed the Editor," tried the orange and ginger flavor and found it to be a very intense yogurt experience in a "not delicious" way. But she thought siggi's pomegranate and passion fruit flavor was "on the tolerable side of sour, and tasty."

On the other hand, Lauren Slayton, a New York nutritionist, tried siggi's orange and ginger and "it was love at first taste," she said. "It's always so nice when the product kind of reads your mind and comes out exactly as you would have designed it." She recommends siggi's as a post-workout snack for protein and the orange and ginger for prenatal clients. At home, she uses plain siggi's for tuna and chicken salads as well as smoothies.

Hilmarsson, who started making Icelandic yogurt partly because he was put off by sweet American yogurts, takes a tolerant view. It's fine with him if you want to add a little honey.

But, he says, don't be afraid of the tart. He often gets e-mails saying, "Hey, Siggi. Your yogurt — it was a mouthful at first; it was very tart, but now I can't eat anything else. Everything else tasted too sweet to me."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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