In France, yogurt isn’t just a good source of protein, it’s a national pastime. Picture Willy Wonka’s namesake factory, but filled instead with an intense variety of fermented dairy products. Welcome to the yogurt aisle in France. C’est bon! There are plain yogurts anchored with fresh fruit, riddled with nibs of chocolate, and lined with bases of caramel and chestnut puree. There are desserts lactés, which contain additional sugar and eggs and take the form of chocolate cake, tiramisu, creme brûlée, or clafoutis. There are organic yogurts, sheep and goat milk yogurts, and non-dairy yogurts. There are mass-produced yogurts and yogurts made in small batches on family farms. My beloved favours the latter.
So why is yogurt is such an intrinsic part of French life? France is Europe’s second-largest dairy producer after Germany, but that doesn’t explain the allure of yogurt. And while the Germans consume more fermented dairy products than the French, their yogurt aisles are good but are not as fabulous. So I decided to do some research.
Yogurt has had a few centuries to gain a foothold in French culture. It first made a splash in France back in 1542, when King Francois I suffered a stomach bug that doctors could not cure. The sultan of the Ottoman Empire (where yogurt is said to have been discovered in the third millennium B.C, by goatherds who preserved milk by fermenting it in sheepskin) was friendly with the throne and sent the king a doctor who cured him—with yogurt. News of this miracle food subsequently spread.
In the early 20th century, science stepped in to explain the miracle. First, a medical student in Bulgaria isolated a bacteria native to his country’s yogurt called Lactobacillus, which was not naturally present in the human intestinal tract. Using this research, a scientist at the Institute Pasteur in Paris linked the same bacteria to longevity in Bulgarian peasants. In the French imagination, yogurt became tied indelibly to health, and thus a culture of already sensible eaters pledged their devotion to it.
At the same time, two of the world’s largest multinational yogurt companies appeared in France: Danone, which was founded in Spain in 1919 before relocating to Paris a decade later; and Yoplait, conjoined in 1965 by the French dairy coops Yola and Coplait. Conveniently, the company’s formation coincided with the advent of TV and television advertising in French homes.
France consumes over 20kg (44 lbs) of yogurt per capita – that’s a lot of yoghurt! The majority of the French population eats at least one serving of yogurt daily, and one third consume five servings weekly.
In the past few years, there have been considerable changes in the buying habits of French consumers owing to the busy lifestyle, health trends, veganism and changing perceptions of the younger generation. For instance, plant-based and gluten-free yoghurt is gaining popularity among consumers while organic and all-natural are the new keywords in the French yoghurt market.
Health benefits and effective advertising aside, is there something else, something more intrinsic that explains yogurt’s outsize presence in French culture?
I think it’s all down to daily habits in the home and the continued ritual of the three-course meal. Most families will eat a salad, main course and dessert but that dessert is often a healthy alternative, fresh fruit or yogurt. It goes back to the French obsession for balance; always eating meals at the same time and no snacking. But even within this regimen, yogurt has its place. Morning, noon or night, it fits all appetites and (rarely) breaks the rules. It is a food that improves but never steals the show.
Next time you go to a French supermarket, spend a few extra minutes strolling by all the French yogurt varieties. You may be there awhile. Even in the smaller shops, the yogurt selection is award worthy.