Few food categories are hotter than yogurt is right now. But the brand marketing capitalizing on its trendiness is seriously flawed — as are most of the products themselves, unfortunately.

Of all the food product categories that have lucked into marketing prominence, at least from a health standpoint, few have been as successful as yogurt. In fact, the category is expected to surpass $9 billion in U.S. sales by the end of next year, according to projections from the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association.

Commentary: A beef with yogurtI say that yogurt marketers “lucked into” this kind of sales growth because three trends coincided, but the industry had nothing to do with two of them.

The first is the nutrition messaging coming from public health officials and NGOs emphasizing consumption of “nutrient-dense foods,” for which virtually all dairy products qualify. Certainly, industry input helped shape that message, if not its prominence.

Second, the continuing obesity crisis has prompted both legitimate and fraudulent dietary experts to recommend adding protein to one’s diet as a means of weight loss, positioning upon which the major branded yogurt manufacturers have been quick to capitalize.

And finally, a swirl of nutritional trends — lactose intolerance, women’s need for calcium, and the slew of ads promoting probiotics as digestive necessities — catapulted yogurt toward the top of the list of snack-type foods that didn’t trash one’s diet, actually supplied vital nutrients and provided the convenience and flavor that we consumers apparently cannot live without.

Add in the sudden success of Greek-style yogurt products and you have a big-time winner.

However, I have a big-time problem with the positioning that most yogurt marketers have chosen to adopt. Here’s what I mean.

In a marketing packet aimed at healthcare professionals, The Dannon Company posed the problem: “The average American diet is more unbalanced than ever, the result of too many foods low in essential nutrients and high in fat, sodium and added sugars.”

Of course, that was a quote from USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and it would be tough to refute those data.

The Dannon letter goes on to note that the Guidelines recommend increased intake of fruits, vegetables, seafood and whole grains — meat is conspicuous by its absence — plus “three servings of fat-free or low-fat milk products a day.”

Gee, I wonder what product could furnish some of those three servings of low-fat milk products?

A startling comparison

As part of what Dannon officials are calling their “proactive approach to a healthy lifestyle,” they list yogurt’s nutritional benefits: calcium, vitamin D, potassium and high-quality protein — all of which is true (although the vitamin D is added via fortification).

What Dannon doesn’t include, however, is any reference to the added sugars found in their allegedly “nutrient-dense” products. For example, the company’s Fruit on the Bottom Mixed Berries product contains 140 calories in a 4-ounce serving. But 75 percent of those calories are from carbohydrates — not protein— with fully two-thirds of the product’s total calories coming from added sugar.

You know, the nutrient our unbalanced diets contain too much of.

Okay, maybe it’s unfair to pick on an “old-school” yogurt formulation. So how about the trendy Dannon Activa Light Strawberry flavor product? That has only 70 calories, but guess what? Again, 75 percent of its total calories come from carbs — mostly sugar — and not protein.

To put that into perspective, compare Dannon yogurt with some products universally considered just this side of outright junk food. Kellogg’s iconic Frosted Flakes cereal has only 36 percent of calories from sugar. Blueberry Pop Tarts have only 34 percent of total calories from sugar. And Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream, which nobody considers a health food, has only 37 percent of its calories from sugar.

All of the food products most people consider seriously unhealthy actually contain only half as much sugar as typical flavored yogurt products.

That’s a serious problem for a category positioning itself as the key to proactive, healthy lifestyles.

The real alternative

Here’s an even bigger problem. All of Dannon’s (and every other yogurt marketer’s) advertising is drenched in the notion that consumers can take comfort in selecting low-fat and even non-fat choices. I don’t blame the manufacturers for pushing lower calorie options; they’re merely piggybacking on USDA’s ill-advised recommendation about increasing Americans’ intake of fat-free and low-fat milk products.

Which is absurd, and it needs to stop.

If we’re going to properly respond to the appeal to limit consumption of snack foods, fast-food and junk foods in favor of healthier alternatives, then the option isn’t highly processed, dairy-based concoctions that deliver two-thirds (or more) of their calories from sugar. The alternative to products too high in fat, sodium and sugar is natural foods, which the dairy industry offers in abundance: milk, cheese, butter and plain yogurt — without the fat removed.

No one who’s serious about good nutrition can advocate choosing food products from which an essential nutrient has been removed or significantly reduced. Nature didn’t design milk from animals or humans to be low-fat or fat-free — for good reason — and if the dietary establishment truly wants Americans to opt for a healthier diet, then the recommendation is simple and straightforward: Eat natural, unprocessed foods, like meat, poultry, milk and eggs.

End of recommendation.

Pretending that processed milk protein from which the natural fat has been skimmed off, and into which added sugars, flavoring and functional ingredients have been dumped, is somehow a suitable solution to our unbalanced diets is about as wrong as it gets.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.