I have no quarrel with frozen yogurt; it’s “fro-yo” that baffles me. There are the interchangeable, infantile shop names—YoGo Monster, Yolato, Oko, /eks/, Flurt, Pinkberry, Yorganic—and then there’s the fact that these franchises all make almost exactly the same, tangy icy dessert, despite partisans who claim that one is infinitely better than another. Even the toppings that each store offers are nearly identical. The appetite for fro-yo seems insatiable; every time I think the trend is on its way out, a new place hawking that same “all-natural yogurt” opens up.
The product is generally pleasant enough—mildly tangy, natural-yogurt-flavored soft-serve. And if it were merely a mediocre commercial product that lots of people like, it wouldn’t be all that intriguing. But there’s more to it than that—there’s a clinical, almost medical overtone to the fro-yo craze. It’s no surprise that younger women line up for something that’s touted as being low-fat and low-calorie. But most of the frozen-yogurt places offer something less tangible, too: the feeling that not only will fro-yo make you skinny, but it’ll also help you perfect yourself. Dessert made functional.
The fro-yo movement has been rolling along in New York for at least a year and a half, but for much longer in L.A., which is ground zero for functional foods. Red Mango, one of the first businesses of the genre, opened in South Korea in 2002, the brainchild of a Korean-born, American-raised entrepreneur. Pinkberry opened in Los Angeles in 2005 (some say the founders were copying the successful Red Mango model; Pinkberry says they were inspired by European gelato), and Red Mango opened its first store in Southern California in 2006. The ensuing frenzy of imitation started in L.A.—Berry Nutty, Swirls, Yogotango—and made its way to New York, where for some reason, we were ready to shelve our cynicism and scream for fro-yo: It was going to make us skinny, lower our cholesterol, save the planet, and maybe even raise our IQ a few points.
Walk into a Red Mango and you’ll find a flyer detailing how the various toppings are going to fix your flaws. Bad eyesight? Try mango—it has vitamin A for your eyes. You can also get antioxidant-infused bottled water (to ward off cancer, one assumes). At /eks/, the flavors are helpfully named Dr. Green Tea, Dr. Coconut, and Dr. Mango Lassi. Yorganics, the newest of the bunch, was founded by Bo Kim, a pharmacist, and his business partners are also pharmacists. Kim says that he wants his organic fro-yo to be the “Rolls-Royce of yogurts,” and he will soon be introducing a vitamin-infused frozen yogurt and an ultra-low-cal frozen yogurt made with a sugar derivative.
The problem is that despite their aura of virtue, these products are actually not that good for you. Yes, they’re lower in fat and calories than ice cream, and some of them (including Pinkberry and Red Mango) carry the National Yogurt Association’s stamp, certifying live and active yogurt cultures.
None of that impresses Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University and the author of What to Eat. She took one look at the Pinkberry nutritional information and didn’t mince her words: “I’d judge it a poor-quality commercial frozen yogurt (compared, say, to Häagen-Dazs) on the grounds that it has replaced real food ingredients with additives and emulsifiers. The calories seem low [70 calories per 1/2 cup], and I don’t see how they can do that unless the bulk of the ingredients are indigestible,” she writes. “I’d want to have the calories tested by an independent lab.”
What about the taste? “I’ve tasted it; it tastes just as you would expect for something that’s so heavy with additives. And yes, it’s a dessert. I’ve had better.”
Across the board, most of the yogurts taste exactly the same—I sampled a small plain yogurt topped with mango from each. But there are a few differences. The best of the bunch is Oko, which has an intense yogurty tang, probably because they buy the yogurt base from a Greek family in Queens. They also make their own chocolate sauce and whipped cream, which implies that they understand they’re selling a dessert item, rather than nectar from the Fountain of Youth. Red Mango is the runner-up; it has a lush creaminess that the others lack. The worst? Pinkberry, with its icy, harsh texture.
We wouldn’t want to you to get confused and wander into the wrong fro-yo spot, so here’s a guide to telling them apart. But I’ll stick to Mister Softee.
• locations in nyc: two
• price for a small, plus one topping, with tax: $4.64
• tagline: “Products contain no refined sugar and have a refreshing taste you can’t find anywhere else” (Au contraire!)
• vibe: dentist’s office meets massage parlor
• irritation factor: medium. The servers must hand-cut each piece of fruit to order, using a tiny paring knife, and then painstakingly stick the fruit bits to the sloping side of the yogurt.
• locations in nyc: two
• price for a small, plus one topping, with tax: $4.20
• tagline: “Yogurt culture”
• vibe: minimalist, Pinkberry-lite
• irritation factor: low. Not much in the way of design; the yogurt tastes exactly the same as all the other middle-of-the-packers.
• locations in nyc: two
• price for a small, plus one topping, with tax: $4.89
• tagline: “Be contagious”
• vibe: rainforest eco-lodge meets Ikea
• irritation factor: low. The fresh, yogurty flavor weighs in its favor, plus you can get a three-ounce mini-size with one topping for $3. But their in-your-face eco-friendliness grates.
• locations in nyc: 13
• price for a small, plus one topping, with tax: $5.21
• tagline: “Swirly goodness”
• vibe: nursery school meets anime theme park
• irritation factor: high. The prices are outrageous, and you also have to contend with long lines of pushy girls who’ve been starving themselves all day, and surly counterpeople who hate the world.
• locations in nyc: five (soon to be seven)
• price for a small, plus one topping, with tax: $4.28
• tagline: “Treat yourself well”
• vibe: Starbucks meets GNC vitamin shop
• irritation factor: Medium. Horoscopes play on a flat-screen TV; the bottled water has antioxidants in it. A woman addresses a child in a tone and pitch usually reserved for emergencies, asking: “Do you know how cute you are?!”
• locations in nyc: one (soon to be two)
• price for a small, plus one topping, with tax: $4.75
• vibe: Summer camp meets the DMV
• irritation factor: medium. Indolent counterpeople; SUV-like stroller traffic jams; subpar yogurt.
• locations in nyc: four
• price for a small, plus one topping, with tax: $5.02
• tagline: “Yogurt Gelato”
• vibe: McDonald’s meets medical clinic
• irritation factor: low. Orange-and-white tile; soap operas on the flat-screen; nothing on the walls but an enormous poster listing nutritional info.
• locations in nyc: two
• price for a small, plus one topping, with tax: $4.55
• tagline: “Experience bliss”
• vibe: Whole Foods meets TCBY
• irritation factor: high. Vitamin-infused yogurts; cups as “ecotainers.”