Is 'Unsweetened' Bonjour Yogurt The Real Deal?
For years, I've wondered what's in Bonjour!, the delicious, locally made "yogurt" (it's actually kefir) sold at approximately 30 Southern California farmers markets. I'm a sucker for its silky texture, its supposed health benefits and its dozens of flavors, especially white cherry. I'm also pre-diabetic so I have to watch my sugar intake. As much as I love Bonjour's yogurts, I worry they are too sweet to contain only the natural sugars from fruit. This is the claim the company's vendors make at the farmers markets where they sell the stuff. The product's label reads "pasteurized milk, cherry puree, probiotics."
The foodie in me desperately wants this to be true. The journalist in me isn't sure that's possible. In a world where Subway's tuna salad sandwiches may or may not contain tuna, I knew I had to get to the bottom of this cup of kefir.
I decided to do a little digging. What's in Bonjour? Is it free from all added sweeteners? Is it good for you? What I discovered was a mixed bag. But before we get into that, a little history.
What Is Kefir?
Kefir is a fermented drink that's often described as watery yogurt. It's made by taking "grains" of kefir (these "grains" are actually colonies of bacteria and yeast in a protein and lipid matrix) and adding them to milk. Doing this simulates the fermentation process, just as germinating barley and water will eventually create beer. The result is a culture that looks similar to cottage cheese. When kefir is fermented, a natural bacteria (the probiotic Lactobacilli) occurs. Lactobacillus species are probiotics and are considered the "good bacteria" found in human digestive systems and urinary tracts.
Kefir originated centuries ago in the Caucasus Mountains, a region that spans several former Soviet republics. The people of Northern Caucasia have long touted the healing power of kefir cultures. They used kefir to treat tuberculosis as well as intestinal and stomach diseases. Legend has it that the Prophet Mohammed gave kefir to Orthodox Christians and the kefir was then referred to as "Grains of the Prophet." In some families, kefir grains have been passed down from one generation to the next. Even today, many people in North Caucasia won't share their kefir grains with anyone else because they believe it will anger their ancestors.
In the late 1800s, when kefir was available only as a homemade beverage, Russian immunology pioneer Elie Metchnikoff began his groundbreaking studies of kefir's impact on the immune system. He identified kefir as the primary reason Bulgarians had an average life span of 87 years. After Metchnikoff published his research, the All Russian Physician's Society approached the Blandov brothers, owners of a large Moscow dairy and several cheese factories, to see if they could acquire any of these magic grains. According to this article, the Blandov brothers sent a beautiful young employee, Irina Sakharova, to the court of prince Bek-Mirza Barchorov, hoping she could charm him and obtain some of his kefir grains. He refused but he fell for her.
"Every morning I began to receive fragrant bouquets of roses with notes, 'Young lady, come on a date at the Love Alley of Kislovodsk,'" Sakharova writes in her letters, (currently kept by Barchorov's great-grandson). Legend has it that when Irina returned to her employer, Barchorov sent his tribesman to kidnap her (as was the custom) and proposed marriage. The Blandov brothers rescued Irina. As compensation for her kidnapping and "other insults to her person," Barchorov paid a penalty of ten pounds of kefir grains.
Another version of the story says Barchorov simply gave Sakharova the kefir grains because she wanted them. Either way, she returned to Moscow with the kefir and the Blandov brothers began using these grains to make the drink.
In 1908, the Blandov brothers manufactured their first bottles of Kefir and distributed them to patients at Botkins hospital, in Moscow. Later that year, kefir was offered for commercial sale in Moscow. Around the 1930s, the Blandovs began manufacturing kefir on a larger scale. In 1970, when Irina Sakharova was 85 years old, the Soviet Union's Minister of Food and Industry sent her a letter acknowledging her role in bringing kefir to the Russian people.
During the 20th century, kefir became a common drink in Eastern Europe. Wherever immigrants from these countries settled, it came with them. As food culture has become obsessed with all things "heritage" — tomatoes, turkeys, grains — probiotics such as kefir have gotten a glow-up. Now, as in the 18th century, kefir's proponents claim it has a plethora of salutary effects. But not all kefir is created equal.
A 2021 study from the University of Illinois and Ohio State University concluded that the health benefits of kefir and other fermented foods vary widely depending on the type and density of microorganisms they contain. Many fermented foods overstate their bacterial density.
Bonjour!, which I (and probably most people) think of as yogurt, is actually kefir. Whatever it is, this white gold has earned fans at farmers markets from Los Feliz and La Canada to Orange and Alhambra.
At every Bonjour! stand I've been to, there's a small chalkboard on the vendor's table that reads: "3 Ingredients: Yogurt-Probiotic-Fruit. No preservatives, no thickeners, no refined sugars." But that's not the whole list of ingredients.
The Sweet Life?
Have you ever watched people try Bonjour! for the first time? Go to a local farmers market and you'll see some version of this scene play out.
A curious customer spots the Bonjour! stand. Maybe they're intrigued by the signage, maybe they're a yogurt fan looking to try new flavors. They ask a few questions of the seller who offers them a sample. They slip a tiny tasting spoon into their mouth. As the first molecule of sweet, creamy goodness hits their tongue, they typically shut their eyes and utter rapturous moans. "Mmmmmmmm… tastes just like ice cream," people often say. They almost always ask, "What's in this?"
Every time I ask a Bonjour! vendor this question — I've talked to four of them at two different markets — I get the same answer: "Just three ingredients. Probiotics, milk and fruit." With yogurt this sweet, how is that possible?
My curiosity was piqued by a comment on a 2017 blog post on Fro-Yo Girl Speaks. The anonymous commenter, who claimed they had worked for Bonjour!, wrote, "The owner adds sweetener like Stevia to some of the yogurts and doesn't specify that on the container."
Could it be true? I connected with Francesca Capasso, Bonjour's marketing and sales manager. She says she has been with the company since it launched seven years ago, in October 2014.
Capasso describes kefir as a cultured dairy product that is fermented and typically marketed as a drink although it is technically a cheese. She claims 16 different strains of probiotics are present in Bonjour's kefir and says it is made at a local creamery, although she won't specify which one. She says the company's owner, a person I've only heard referred to as "chef Kady," doesn't like to reveal where the product is made. Trade secrets.
After several attempts I was able to get the owner, Kady Hidri, on the phone. Half-Tunisian and half-French, she says she grew up drinking kefir made by her physician father. When the family moved to Los Angeles, in 2014, she began making her own kefir and selling it at farmers markets. "People liked it," Hidri says.
Hidri describes herself as a chef who has a bachelor's degree in finance and a master's degree in business. She says Bonjour! was a way for her to combine her passions. Hidri says that the company initially used sheep's milk but switched to cow's milk around 2017, when the price of sheep's milk spiked due to the drought. She says they occasionally still get sheep's milk and will send kefir made with it to particular farmers markets, on request.
Hidri also confirmed that Bonjour! does, in fact, sweeten some of its flavors.
She says Bonjour! uses date molasses to sweeten many of its more popular flavors including coffee, dark chocolate and caramel. She says Bonjour! also uses Stevia to sweeten flavors such as coconut and apple — and has done so since the beginning. Hidri says Bonjour! used to make its own Stevia but now uses Stevia made by an outside vendor.
"In the beginning, in 2014, everyone asked me how come it's so good? C'mon. But I tell them it's how you work with the real ingredients. The patience, the love," Hidri says. Right, love. Along with some date molasses and Stevia water.
Although every Bonjour! vendor I have ever spoken to has denied that their kefir contains added sweeteners, Capasso confirmed what Hidri had told me. "There are two flavors that use Stevia water: the coconut and apple," Capasso says.
She also confirmed that other flavors are sweetened with honey or date molasses. Of Bonjour's! 42 flavors, at least nine have added sweeteners, according to Capasso.
When I told Capasso that I love the product but I'm pre-diabetic and need to watch my sugars, she revealed that she is a diabetic and said, "We pride ourselves on keeping our sugar content low. There are only two flavors that have refined sugar: white chocolate and Oreo cookie." So at least 11 of Bonjour's approximately 42 kefir flavors contain added sweeteners.
For diabetics, Capasso suggests lemon, blueberry or any of the nut flavors, which she says have no sweeteners. After trying the hazelnut, which has a Nutella-esque sweetness, I found that hard to believe.
Capasso offered the same explanation I'd heard vendors rattle off, time and time again, at farmers markets. "The milk itself is sweet enough. If you try plain, you can tell there's a hint of sweetness," Capasso says.
She says Bonjour! uses 3% fat milk and confirms that the company switched from sheep's milk to cow's milk around 2017. She said Bonjour! didn't advertise the change and it doesn't state, on its packaging or in its marketing, what kind of milk they use.
How Come They Don't State The Nutritional Content?
At this point, you may be wondering why vendors at farmers markets don't have to post the nutritional content or ingredients of their products.
In this arena, the California Department of Food and Agriculture requires only two things of people who sell prepared goods at farmers' markets. (By "prepared goods," we mean food, lotions and anything that isn't grown and harvested.) First, the package must be sealed. Second, it must include the "IRQ" — the Identity of the product (in this case, kefir), the Responsible Party for the product (the manufacturer's name and contact info) and the Quantity (Food and Agricultural Code section 47002).
As Laura Reilly pointed out in Farm to Fable, her 2016 farmers market exposé for The Tampa Bay Times, while the USDA has strict criteria for the word "organic," it has no parameters for products labeled "local," "natural" or "sustainable."
Those "heirloom" tomatoes you paid a premium for? They might've been grown on a conventional farm and purchased at a wholesale produce market in DTLA. After NBC4's 2010 investigation of farmers market vendors, 19 vendors were fined for misrepresenting their products. California passed a law in 2014 that deployed more inspectors to farmers markets around the state but it's unclear whether this law extends to prepared goods.
On my next farmers market trip, I picked up Bonjour's coconut kefir, a flavor Capasso told me is sweetened with Stevia. I asked the vendor, "Is this a flavor without sweetener?" Once again, I was told, "Three ingredients: probiotics, fruit and milk."
For most people, consuming Stevia without knowing it is no big deal. For someone trying to monitor their diet, it might be a minor annoyance. For diabetics and people taking certain medications, it can present serious problems, according to Medical News Today.
"There's a lot of conflicting research out there about Stevia," Kate Morgan wrote in New York magazine. "If something doesn't have calories, we automatically think it's this thing with no consequence. But it can have all sort of effects in the body, and they're not necessarily benign."
Although Stevia is a zero-calorie and carbohydrate-free sweetener, it can lower blood sugars and blood pressure, and act as a diuretic, as mentioned in Medical News today. Stevia can also interact with certain medications, so you'd want to know if it was in something before you consumed it, writes Jennifer Huizen.
Capasso told me that many of Bonjour's customers are patients at various Kaiser hospitals. As part of Kaiser Permanente's thrive initiative, each facility connects to a walking path, and each facility hosts a weekly farmer's market. In fact, Capasso mentioned, one of the reasons the company chose 3% fat milk was so cancer patients and people on the keto diet could eat it and maintain a healthy weight. But for consumers, particularly people who are sick or have dietary restrictions, an incomplete list of ingredients can be a concern.
Lab testing of Bonjour's kefir, from a company like Nutridata Lab in Laguna Beach, could determine what is in the yogurt but the fees for such testing run anywhere from $245 to $895 per flavor.
When people buy Bonjour! kefir, they're told it's a product with no added sweeteners. Something that tastes good and is good for you? Jackpot! In reality, Bonjour's kefir is often sweetened.
When I tried to reach out to Hidri to ask about the ingredients, she was busy and stopped responding to my calls. I did finally connect with Capasso and she explained that the health department does, in fact, require that they list all of the ingredients on their labels. Some of the yogurt flavors she had told me about contain Stevia list that on the label while others do not.
In recent months, I bought get a container of Bonjour's apple kefir that listed Stevia among its ingredients but the container Bonjour's coconut kefir that I procured did not. Capasso said that due to the pandemic, the company is short-staffed and, as a result, they've found it hard to ensure all containers have proper labels and that all the employees are fully trained.
"When people are getting unemployment for doing nothing, they don't want to work," Capasso says. "Personally, I myself like to work, but that's just me."
When in doubt, treat your yogurt (or your kefir) as though it contains added sweeteners. Although the sweetening agents might be honey or date sugar, they may not be any better for you than the sweeteners in most store-bought yogurts, which are required to list their contents and nutritional information on their labels.
Reporting on this story has definitely changed the way I consume Bonjour! I used to religiously purchase five containers a week, and I ate almost a container a day, spread between breakfast and dinner. Since learning about the sweeteners, I've cut down — a lot. I stay away from the flavors that I know contain added Stevia and the flavors that seem too sweet to not contain one of the other sweeteners Capasso told me is added.
I now treat Bonjour! like a mid- or high-calorie snack. I might add a quarter of a cup to my morning oatmeal or top off a bowl of fruit with a dollop but I don't eat it straight out of the container the way I used to. Just because something claims it's "natural" doesn't mean it's good for you.