It is hot and sticky out—what could be healthier than a stop at the new frozen yogurt place for a healthy refresher? But is this frozen treat really better than ice cream?

“A half-cup serving of a light ice cream is about the same as a half-cup serving of non-fat frozen yogurt. Both the non-fat frozen yogurt and low-fat ice cream clock in at about 100 calories per half cup,” says Corinne Dobbas, MS, RD,  a registered dietitian at Bay Club Marin.

Yet not all calories are the same. Frozen yogurt still has a better overall nutritional profile than ice cream, but not all frozen yogurts are the same. If you don’t know what makes a frozen yogurt a true healthy treat, you can sabotage your diet efforts.

Frozen Trapped

For starters, is “frozen yogurt” really just yogurt? The National Yogurt Association (NYA) states, “frozen yogurt is non-standardized food and, therefore, is not subject to Federal composition standards, as is the case for yogurt.” And you thought you finally found the best mix in the diet quest: decadent flavor and nutritional conscious food to cool you off.

But not so fast. Frozen yogurt still packs a healthy yogurt-like punch. You are familiar with the quite stellar nutrition content that yogurt can provide—a good source of protein, calcium, B vitamins, some fortified with vitamin D inclusive, and live and active cultures that maintain a healthy balance between the good and bad gut bacteria.

“Typically, yogurt—through its fermentation process—is known for its live, active bacterial- cultures, a.k.a. probiotics. These cultures enhance immune function and improve digestion and nutrient absorption. As long as your yogurt has not been heated after fermentation or in meal preparation, it contain at least two cultures: Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Steptococcus thermophilus explains Nancy Falini, MA, RD, LDN, consultant to the Celiac Center at Paoli Hospital.

The freezing process does not kill any significant amount of cultures. In fact, when eaten and return to warm temperatures in the body, they provide all the good cultures in a refrigerated process, points out the NYA. However not all products termed frozen yogurt actually contain live and active culture, the NYA adds. Some use heat-treated yogurt, which kills the live and active cultures or skip the fermentation step all together.

To make sure your frozen yogurt contains active and live cultures, look for the Live & Active Culture seal. This guarantees the frozen yogurt contains yogurt produced by traditional fermentation.

“When present on a label—the seal of approval—it identifies refrigerated yogurt products with at least 100 million culture cells per each gram at the time of production,” says Falini. “While there is no known recommended amount of cultures that one should consume daily, yogurt can provide a substantial amount.”

Size Does Matter

Plenty of research has shown the health benefits of the live and active cultures – known as probiotics—to improve some gut conditions, strengthen the immune system, and the latest, decrease belly fat.  This has opened doors to the food industry to pour millions into a new product trend that jumps on the healthy food wagon.

Consumers eager to find something both yummy and nutritional relate yogurt with health, as studies have shown people eat more of a food if it is labeled organic. The problem gets worse when you venture into the new frozen yogurt stores that pop up everywhere. Besides frozen yogurt, they serve up plenty of sugary and high fat toppings—brownie chunks anyone?—and with few healthier options. Also, the majority of these places offer one standard cup size, which can easily fit four times what it’s considered a typical ½ cup frozen yogurt serving. So you end up with a high calorie, sugar, and fat dessert.

Five Steps to Follow

There is no need to banish frozen yogurt from your good-to-go diet foods. Nevertheless, you need to be smart when going out for a treat. (If you are tapping the top of your huge container to fill in more toppings, you have slipped into a diet pitfall.) Here are some tips:

1. Portion savvy: serve yourself no more than ½  cup, which is about the size of light bulb or half a baseball, and comes in at approximately 110 calories, says Dobbas.

2. Be selective: the toppings can be a diet disaster—just a scoop of some syrups, cookies, and cake chunks can add more than 100 calories. The best toppings are fresh fruit (no added sugar) or raw nuts, says Falini.

3. Add benefits: don’t miss the opportunity to supply your gut with healthy doses of probiotics. Look for the Live & Active Culture Seal—the website of many frozen yogurt places, such as TCBY, Menchies, among others have all this information. Beware that some low carb frozen yogurt options do not provide probiotics.

4. Sugar comparison: ½ cup of a plain frozen yogurt should have no more than 7 grams of sugar. Anything above this number is added sugar.

5. Go Greek: An even safer option is Greek-style yogurt, which compared to other yogurts has more protein, less sugar, and more of a satiating affect, says Dobbas.

Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website, martamontenegro.com, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.

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