CHOOSING the right yogurt in Cambodia is like going on a blind date, for beyond the cool exterior and colourful packaging, you might be holding a sugarcoated deadbeat who really isn’t in your best interests.
Strolling through the refrigerated aisle at a supermarket in Phnom Penh reveals shelves stocked with a multitude of eligible yogurts, all vying for your attention in a competitive, rapidly expanding market.
Yogurt sales constitute one of the fastest growing sectors of the dairy industry worldwide according to recent reports, particularly in the rapidly expanding Asian market as consumers become more health conscious and educated about the food they choose.
At a fundamental level, yogurt appears to have a lot to offer because of its positive association with health, not limited to studies that suggest it may slow bone loss, reduce hypertension and boost the immune system.
Serving as a good source of protein, yogurt also garners praise from researchers, nutrition experts and athletes because in essence it is probiotic, a word believed to originate from Greek and Latin terms that come together meaning “for life”, with the live bacteria inside each bottle or pot harnessing the potential to confer a variety of health benefits.
People who suffer from lactose intolerance are often able to eat yogurt with no harmful effects because the bacteria work to break down lactose, a milk sugar. Travelers can also benefit from yogurt because the bacteria compete with harmful variants, reducing the duration and severity of digestion problems.
Maria Ahlberg, fitness trainer, nutritionist and co-owner of Fit4Life in Phnom Penh, explains why she recommends yogurt to her clients as part of a healthy diet.
“It’s stocked full of goodness,” she says. “These are the good bacteria, offering 18 of the 22 essential nutrients.”
Earning her human nutrition diploma in Sweden and working as a nutrition expert for the past 15 years, she says nutrition really isn’t that complicated.
“People need to ask themselves whether they want to be a Formula One race car or a scooter. Food is fuel. They are the same thing and what you use to power your body is just as important as the quality of fuel you put in your gas tank.”
As a response to the growing demands of health conscious consumers, grocery stores, corner markets, snack bars and restaurants in Phnom Penh all appear to have something to offer. At first glance, the increasing availability – and variety – of yogurt products appears to be a big win for people seeking healthy alternatives in their diets.
But taking a closer look at the products at major supermarkets in the city, where refrigerated aisles are stacked with as many as ten different name brands of yogurt, offering up to five times the amount of flavours and sizes, there’s a hidden truth waiting to be uncovered.
One problem that stems from the commercially available products in Cambodia is that they are all presently imported, originating from a variety of locations such as Thailand, including brands like Betagen, Dutchie, and Foremost, in addition to Vinamilk from Vietnam, Meiji from Japan and Bulla from Australia.
As a consequence, most of the ingredient listings and nutritional labels are not available in English, which means a large portion of expat customers are required to take a leap of faith – unless they possess a decoder ring.
Ahlberg warns there is a veil of variety and a mirage of health claims associated with many of these products at the supermarket.
“They put so much sugar inside most commercial brands that one small bottle of yogurt is comparable to a can of Coca-Cola.”
Computer savvy yogurt lovers may already be aware that many of the brands have their own Facebook fan pages.
Taken one step further, consumers can use the internet to inform themselves of what is actually inside their favourites by visiting company websites. Some addresses are provided on the packaging while others prove to be trickier to track down in cyberspace, requiring surfers to dig through search engines and at times, employing the use of an online language translator.
Taking note of words like น้ำตาล and đường, meaning sugar in Thai and Vietnamese respectively, unmasks it as a major ingredient in several formulas, claiming almost 25 per cent of the contents in some varieties.
“Sugar, in my world, is empty,” explains Ahlberg. “It burns fast and does not supply the body with any long-term benefits. It gives you energy quickly, but when you eat too much your body can’t use it all and stores it as fat.”
Further complicating the validity of potential health benefits is trying to determine whether these products actually contain probiotic bacteria, for in order to gain any of the potential benefits of bacteria, it needs to be alive.
Bob Cumiskey, owner of Garden Centre Café near Sihanouk Boulevard, has been perfecting his own style of plain yogurt for over a decade, stating that part of the reason he became interested in the topic was because he wanted to be sure what was inside of it.
“I’ve done my research over the years and some of the commercial products are just flavoured milk with sugar,” he explains. “It’s part of the manufacturing process that sterilizes the yogurt culture. There’s nothing living in some of them.”
He stands behind the yogurt he sells from his restaurant, made locally using imported milk products and live bacteria cultures.
“I import the main ingredients from New Zealand and the US because I want to know exactly what I’m getting,” he explains.
As a restaurant owner and a self-made yogurt connoisseur, Cumiskey claims that his yogurt is growing in popularity for reasons that go beyond mere taste and texture, citing seven deadly sins he has managed to avoid.
“No sugars, no sweeteners, no preservatives, no thickeners, no flavourings, no colourings, no additives,” he says, while reading from one of his product labels.
It’s been said that the proof is in the pudding, and that expression may have to change within the context of Cambodia. When Ahlberg learned about the Garden Centre Café yogurt, she went to try a sample, stating it was delicious but she remains reserved.
“It’s the best I’ve found in Cambodia, but there is still no concrete nutritional information about this yogurt yet. As a nutritionist, I need to know exactly what is inside food before I put it inside my body,” she says. “When the information comes forward, then I can make the recommendation as to whether it is of benefit to my clients.”
Whether consumers continue to try their luck with imports at the supermarket or decide to flirt with a more homegrown variety, there are more options in Cambodia than ever before when it comes to tickling taste buds with yoghurt. Treating products like a potential date might be the best strategy for those who are interested in making an informed choice, checking references before they decide to make any commitments.
Published Friday, 03 June 2011 – Seven Days (7D) / The Phnon Penh Post