Naba Basar explains why this milk product should be a part of everyone’s diet.

Cleopatra bathed in this milk product for a smooth and tender complexion. Genghis Khan fed it to his soldiers to give them courage. Though a cherished food in the Middle Eastern and Central Asian lands for centuries, only recently has yoghurt gained universal popularity. It was discovered about 5,000 years ago on the Mesopotamian plains. Later, the Turks introduced it into Eastern and Central Europe, giving it the name – yoghurt.

Modern nutritionists have justified its reputation as an almost medicinal food. The Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus bacteria found in yoghurt, which convert pasteurized milk to yoghurt during fermentation, aid in digestion of food within an hour of consumption. Humans produce this digestive enzyme naturally during childhood, but it declines, when we reach adulthood.

Yoghurt is an excellent source of protein, calcium, riboflavin, and vitamin B12. It is so protein-dense that it is now considered a meat alternative. It has been proven that yoghurt contains a teeming load of healthy bacteria – about 100 million per gram. Its antibiotic effects help combat infections and protect the stomach lining from toxins, as it flourishes in the digestive tract. Containing high levels of natural prostaglandins, yoghurt can prevent diarrhoea and dysentery – especially in infants.

Yoghurt helps prevent cancer in colon by suppressing activity that converts harmless chemicals into carcinogenic agents. It is also known to help prevent yeast infections. As a source of calcium, yoghurt can even prevent osteoporosis. Many doctors recommend live yoghurt for patients on antibiotics to replenish good bacteria. Some argue that yoghurt live cultures may reduce the occurrence of colds, allergies, and hay fever. It also counteracts lactose intolerance by its association with lactase.

Much more easily digestible than milk, yoghurt is ideal for pregnant women, children, the aged, and the sick. In addition, it is believed that regular eaters of this fermented milk tend to have clear skin and find no problem in enjoying a good night’s sleep. Yoghurt also reduces bad breath and internal gas and keeps vaginal flora in balance.

Increased yogurt consumption may help increase one’s resistance to immune – related diseases, such as cancer and infections, particularly gastrointestinal infections. Partly, this increased resistance is because of the live and active cultures (LAC) found in yoghurt.

Contrary to the general notion, yoghurt is not fattening. For those wishing to cut down on the amount of fat, cholesterol, and calories in their diets, yoghurt made from skimmed milk is highly recommended. In preparing meals, brands labeled low-fat and low-cholesterol can be substituted for mayonnaise, sour cream or similar products. This will result in tremendous improvement in diets – at times working wonders.

All types of milk, ranging from reindeer to cow, can be utilized in the making of yoghurt. However, the nutrient and fat values vary depending on whether it is prepared from cream, whole, partly-skimmed or skimmed milk, and if it has additives, such as fruits or syrups.

As for yoghurt’s taste, the more cream is used the tastier. However, if made from skimmed milk, it is somewhat weaker in flavour but also lower in fat and calories.

Besides its notional value, yoghurt is high in protein, convenient, marvelously versatile, and adaptable – a naturally sweet, tangy, and smooth milk product. It adds richness, flavour, and an appetizing aroma to myriad of dishes. The possibilities of cooking with this cultured milk are infinite. It blends well with cheese, eggs, grains, meats, fruits, vegetables and makes an excellent marinade. Delicious when flavoured with syrups, nuts, herbs and spices, it enhances and is enhanced by other ingredients of foods.

Dishes prepared from yoghurt, especially in the Arab world, are endless. In numerous Muslim countries, yoghurt is often drunk to break the Ramadan fast. A yoghurt drink is the thirst quenching beverage much favoured by most strata of North African society. During hot summer days, cold soups similar to the famous Spanish Gazpacho are on the menu in many Arab homes. In winter, nothing is more satisfying than Libaniyah, a piping hot soup made from yoghurt, garlic, mint, and rice.

Labneh, a type of cheese made by placing yoghurt in a cloth bag and allowing it to drain, is a favourite healthy breakfast and snack food or a tasty dip, enjoyed in the Middle East. However, in the greater areas of Syria, Sheesh Barak, a type of dumpling in yoghurt, is the king of yoghurt dishes. To the peasants, a steaming hot aromatic bowl of Sheesh Barak is heaven-sent on cold winter days.

Because of its appealing taste and healthy properties, yoghurt continues to command the interest of cooks and medical scientists around the world. Researchers are continuously investigating the beneficial effects this nutritious food may have in reducing cholesterol levels and preventing a good number of diseases.

According to a new study published in The Lancet, the British Medical Association Journal, treating pregnant women with ‘good bacteria’ such as Lactobacillus in yoghurt may prevent thousands of children from contracting asthma by strengthening the baby’s fledgling immune system before birth. For postmenopausal women, increasing calcium intake may be critical in helping to reduce bone loss. A recent study showed that women three to six years past menopause, who increased their calcium intake to 1,500 milligrams per day for three years, slowed bone loss. Scientific evidence also indicates that for the elderly, calcium lowers the rate of bone loss and lessens the effects of osteoporosis. The results are promising