Yogurt is a Turkish word that means “to be curdled or coagulated, to thicken.” It also means the product of fermentation that probably first occurred by accident when milk was stored using primitive methods in a warm climate. Some reports suggest that Turks, a nomadic people, carried milk in goat skin bags and bacteria from the leather spontaneously fermented it. Others suggest that fermentation resulted from contact with plants. Whatever the cause, people soon realized that the fermented milk could be kept longer than fresh, and they enjoyed its tangy taste.
According to historical accounts, yogurt was a staple among Neolithic peoples in Central Asia as early as 6000 BC; Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, supposedly ate yogurt and fed it to his armies. Yogurt eventually became a staple in the diets of people in the Russian Empire (especially Central Asia and the Caucasus), Western Asia, Southeastern Europe (the Balkans), Central Europe and India. It developed a reputation for increasing strength and longevity among those who consumed it regularly throughout their lives. A study of Bulgarian peasants conducted early in the 20th century by Russian Nobel laureate Elie Metchnikoff at the Institut Pasteur in Paris confirmed yogurt’s health benefits.
Turkish immigrants brought yogurt to North America in the 18th century, but it didn’t catch on until the Dannon yogurt company arrived in New York in the 1940s. The first commercial yogurt factory was founded by Isaac Carasso, a Sephardic Jew who immigrated to Spain from Greece in 1912 to escape the Balkan wars. He started his plant in Barcelona in 1919 and named it Danone, or “little Daniel,” after his son. More than twenty years later, the brand expanded to the United States when Daniel, now grown, established a small yogurt factory in the Bronx. The company’s name was Americanized to Dannon.
Dannon subsequently hired a herd of admen to hustle its product in America. It pioneered the practice of packing fruit at the bottom of yogurt containers to offset its sour taste, giving rise to the phrase “sundae-style” yogurt. Starting in the 1970s, it ran a legendary series of ads featuring “Georgians (from the old Soviet Bloc, not the American south) over 100 years old chopping wood and hoeing fields; “Now, we’re not saying that Dannon yogurt will help you live longer,” the narrator coyly noted.
By the 1980s, yogurt sales in the United States were growing 19 percent annually, opening the door to a flood of new products that contained gelatin, dextrose, locust bean gum and a host of other ingredients never before present in yogurt, and leading the New York Times to question whether these products could even be called yogurt.
The yogurt market in the United States is now $1.135 billion annually, and Dannon has a new ad campaign that tells people “you can’t change the world, but you can change the way you live.” As a sign that the message is resonating, in 2014 the New York State Legislature, after an hour of heated debate, adopted yogurt as the official state snack. “Did the proposer consider pretzels?” asked one disgruntled lawmaker.