All Fro-Yo is Diet Culture

All Fro-Yo is Diet Culture
Image:Adam Berry (Getty Images)

Over the weekend, Demi Lovato stepped into the comforting embrace of unnecessary drama, by instigating a fight on Instagram with The Bigg Chill Frozen Yogurt shop, taking them to task for forcing her to confront “diet foods” on her way to the counter. The diet foods in question were sugar, wheat, and dairy-free items targeted towards people who avoid those ingredients for health purposes, as well as low-sugar, low-fat frozen yogurts. Lovato was upset—rather, “triggered”—by the presence of these foodstuffs and requested that the yogurt shop be clearer about the delineation between “diet culture” and “health needs” when it comes to labeling their foods.

Not content to let this drama fizzle out, to be resolved behind the scenes via email or careful, apologetic telephone call, Lovato hopped on Instagram to continue to explain herself, understanding on some level that she needed to. Unfortunately, her explanation does nothing to help, but it is useful information to have. “I’m very passionate about what I believe in,” she says, “and I’m here to speak up for people who don’t have a voice.” Arguably, the only person Lovato is speaking up for is herself, and I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who could say with a straight face that she does not have a voice.

Lovato explained that as someone in recovery from an eating disorder, she struggles with walking into a fro-yo shop, ordering the yogurt, and “keeping it down.” Walking into the yogurt shop was an act of bravery in and of itself, and so to be inundated with foods labeled for those with food sensitivities felt like an attack. “Fro-yo is something I would go to because it is low in calories and it just felt safe to me,” she said. Here’s where the issue lies. Assuming that fro-yo is anything other than ice cream looking at itself in a “skinny” mirror is a recipe for heartbreak. Frozen yogurt is diet culture.

Long marketed as ice cream’s healthier, skinnier cousin, frozen yogurt does have fewer calories than ice cream, and additionally, contains probiotics, which are supposedly good for “gut health.” The probiotics give the yogurt its tang, which ice cream lacks. The tang is what makes it taste “healthy,” in comparison to the rich mouthfeel and indulgence inherent in a really big cone heaped with Rocky Road, procured from the combination Dunkin’ Donuts-Baskin Robbins or your favorite asshole artisanal ice creamery. Frozen yogurt shops may offer many flavors, but arguably, their largest draw is the toppings bar, which invalidates any healthfulness in the yogurt itself. This is evident to anyone with eyeballs and an understanding that, if you get a small cup of European-style yogurt at Pinkberry, but load up that yogurt with chocolate-covered gummi bears, Frooty Pebbles, caramel sauce, marshmallows, and a few raspberries, it’s just the same as a kiddie cone from Mr. Licks-a-Lot. Neither options are bad, but the difference here is that Pinkberry, like its predecessor Tasti D-Lite, is marketed as healthy when really, it’s not.

TCBY, as well as its competitor Tasti D-Lite, is the progenitor of the frozen yogurt craze in America. It was marketed explicitly as a diet food—its tagline, starting in 1984, was “all of the pleasure, none of the guilt”—lodging itself firmly in the diet culture Lovato decries.

And here’s the Tasti D-Lite origin story, courtesy of its official website:

More than a hundred years after ice cream was invented, somebody finally got it right. In 1987, the first official Tasti D-Lite serving swirled into history, and an unprecedented phenomenon came to be. With Tasti D-Lite, shape-conscious New Yorkers could enjoy dessert every day. With fewer calories. Less fat. And none of that pesky guilt. Today, Tasti D-Lite serves its creamy delicious, dairy dessert in more than 100 flavors to thousands of devoted customers every day.
This waist-watcher’s dream began in the kitchen of a New York woman. She didn’t ask for much: she just wanted to enjoy frozen treats like everybody else. But without the worry. And, she thought, maybe other people felt the same way. Experimenting with different ingredients and flavors, she enlisted the help of her food technologist father. Together, they perfected the proprietary formula that satisfies like no other frozen dessert in the world today.

Frozen yogurt is not the only culprit. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the frozen yogurt craze was taking off, other snack foods and sweets were aggressively marketed as indulgences rather than the diet foods they clearly were. Snackwell’s cookies were anemic imitations of non-diet cookies, positioned in the market as a fun but healthy choice to satisfy a sweet tooth. Any 100-calorie snack pack containing a few airy, crumbly Chips Ahoy falls in the same camp. Now that “wellness” and clean eating have become a part of diet culture, fro-yo is an outdated relic of an earlier time. Its endurance is admirable, but most likely, it’s because, of all the old diet food options including the aforementioned cookies, frozen yogurt actually tastes good.

I cannot make it any clearer than it is on the page: frozen yogurt, as a phenomenon, is diet food in and of itself. It is part and parcel with the “diet culture” that Lovato was dismayed by at The Bigg Chill Yogurt shop, proving that she, like many of us, has been simply marinating in this kind of propaganda for at least 20 years.

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