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Page last updated at 12:39 GMT, Friday, 9 May 2008 13:39 UK

In the culture club


By Victoria Bone
BBC News

Every day British people throw away more than a million pots of unopened yoghurt. Why?

Buying food only to throw it away has long been a mark of our wasteful society. Mostly it's fresh fruit and veg, but a new analysis of the untouched produce which finds its way to landfill reveals a more unlikely casualty of our extravagance - yoghurt.

Primary-age girl eats a packed lunch
Yoghurt is a popular treat for parents worried about obesity

For those seeking to follow a healthy diet, the weekly shop seems to have become as much about aspiration as feeding hungry mouths. And any supermarket shopper who wants to buy into this feel-good factor soon finds themselves gazing at the almost interminable shelf space given over to this dairy product.

In the UK, we get through almost five times more yoghurt per person than we did 30 years ago. In 1978 average yoghurt consumption was just 45ml per week - by 2006 it was 204ml. Consumption has risen 40% in the past 10 years.

Yet as good as we have become at buying it, eating it proves more of a challenge. According to a study by Wrap (Waste and Resources Action Programme) we throw away more than nine million yoghurt and yoghurt drinks - unopened - a week. That's almost a tenth of the 100 million pots sold each week.

"Consumers are increasingly looking for healthy, tasty, natural products and yoghurt ticks all those boxes," says a spokesperson for industry body Dairy UK, which confirms sales are growing year on year. "Manufacturers have worked hard to produce new flavours, lower fat variants and innovative packaging to suit shoppers."

Research by the Grocer magazine found that the majority of consumers see yoghurts as a healthy alternative to other snacks and more than half of its research panel saw them as a valid nutritional substitute for breakfast or lunch.

Digestive system

Yoghurts, and particularly biotic drinks like Danone Actimel, Muller Vitality and Flora Pro-Activ, are known in the trade as "functional foods" - in other words, ones people buy for more than just the taste.

To extend shelf life you'd need to add more preservatives - precisely the things people want to be removed
Nick Hughes, The Grocer

The digestive system, cholesterol level and immune system are all claimed to benefit from these biotic drinks.

However, the jury is still out on exactly what the benefits are. A spokeswoman for the British Nutrition Foundation says there is some evidence they could help people who do not have balanced intestinal bacteria.

"However, many studies so far have been carried out in the lab or in animals and further evidence from human trials is required to substantiate the evidence," she says.

Nevertheless, the "health agenda" is definitely a "major contributor to sales and these products are seen as part of living a healthy lifestyle", says the Grocer's Nick Hughes.

But are we really getting any health benefits at all, if the figures on how much we throw away are correct?

Wrap says its research suggests we bin 169m-worth of uneaten yoghurts and yoghurt drinks each year. That amounts to more than 52,000 tonnes.

"Whether it's an image thing too I don't know," says Mr Hughes. "But certainly the people buying these tend to have much more disposable income."

The short shelf-life is not helping matters. By far the most common reason for throwing out unopened pots is that they are past their "use by" or "best before" date.

"People are buying packs of six and eating one every other day, but the shelf life of the whole pack even when they bought it wasn't enough to cover those 12 days," he says.

"The problem is that to extend shelf life you'd need to add more preservatives - precisely the things people want to be removed."

Rich and creamy

It's not just the health concerns that are pushing up sales. Yoghurt has also been given the "luxury" treatment - turning a prosaic dessert into something much grander. Flavours like dulce de leche or Key Lime pie now appear on shelves.

Fruit yoghurt
The link with fruit helps yoghurt's healthy image

Many of those questioned by the Grocer said they knew that the calcium contained within was important, but didn't count yoghurts as part of their recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

However, if Muller has its way that could change. It has recently launched a new One A Day range as a reaction to concern among some in the industry that trendy smoothies could be encroaching on traditional yoghurt territory.

Those in the know think confusion over the respective health benefits of "friendly bacteria" and "real fruit" could be an issue.

Below is a selection of your comments.

My main reason for throwing out yoghurt unopened is because of the days I have to eat breakfast rapidly, or miss it altogether. While we all aspire to having a proper breakfast, knowing its importance; distractions or delays getting up and ready for work often mean it just doesn't happen. Unlike toast or a coffee, yoghurt is hard to eat on the hoof.
Jamie, UK

I must assume stock in shops contribute to the amount being thrown out. I like most will take from the back of the shelf rather than the front as the use by dates are sometimes only a week away.
Caroline, Southam

It is interesting to observe the different terms for the "best before" date: in Germany, we say "at least 'best before'" which means that even though the date may have passed, we will use our common sense to see whether the product can be consumed or not. But I guess this is another effect of the "health and safety" craze...
Seema M, Berlin, Germany

Even though the health value of yoghurt has been questioned, I presume it is good to assume that it's better for health than other snacks e.g. chocolate, crisps, cookies and maybe even some cereal bars. Thus even if some of it gets thrown away at least (I hope it is safe to assume) some of it is also gets eaten, which is better than none, or the alternative above listed foods. Maybe the best approach would be to encourage the manufacturers to reduce the number of yoghurts per pack (from 6 to 4) rather than argue for yoghurts with longer shelf life, which would lead lots more preservatives being added thus defeating the whole point of it being the healthy alternative.

Added Ingredients: Fruit from concentrate, sugar, glucose-fructose syrup, colouring, flavouring. How is that healthy? How is even the yoghurt itself healthy? And how did we ever have healthy digestive systems before "good bacteria" drinks? Yoghurt is a pudding, not a health food.
Wendy, Bracknell, UK

The problem is best-before dates (BBD). Some people see the date as the absolute limit before which it should be consumed. I've eaten loads of food that has passed its BBD by as much as a week (more in some cases) and it's been perfectly good. To me, BBDs seem to be just another part of the "dumbing-down" of society. In Russia, they print the manufacture date instead. They leave the consumer to decide whether it's still good or not.
Phil Rogers, Bournemouth

The ideal use by date is determined by your eyes, nose and tastebuds! Whatever the date on any food says, use the above and live to tell the tale. If I was of a more suspicious frame of mind I might even think that use by and sell by dates were a ploy to make us buy more food. Surely not!
Phil, Haslemere, Surrey

People buy yoghurts because they think they should (as they are marketed as being a good food with health benefits). People throw them away uneaten because they just aren't very nice. Yoghurt or biscuit, yoghurt or biscuit - is not a tough one is it!
Chick, Gatwick

Buy plain goat's milk yoghurt - it has a stronger flavour than the bland cow's milk yoghurt, it can be use as substitute for all kinds of things in cooking, like creme fraiche and mayonnaise, and you just need to add fruit to make a fruity yoghurt - and it tastes fantastic! You don't need to buy expensive flavoured yoghurts to be healthy!
Nona, London

Yoghurt (or yogurt, an equally good spelling) is wonderful stuff - BUT: commercially-produced rubbish does not taste that good. In Germany the situation is much the same, the past 30 years have seen enormous growth in yogurt products. Result? In supermarkets a lot of shelf space is wasted on so-called yogurts which have this fruit or that flavour. Get real! The quantity of strawberries needed to flavour strawberry yogurt cannot even be grown. If the producers would offer real yogurt instead of these artificially-flavoured things, people could add what they like to them (e.g. real strawberries instead of an ester) and perhaps wastage would be reduced. By the way, this stuff was originally made from things like ewes' milk, and was not sweet. To sweeten it, people added honey, or fruits, but the result is a cool combination of tangy and slightly sweet.
D Fear, Heidelberg, Germany

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