The Food That Ate Manhattan: The Implacable Rise of Frozen Yogurt Leaves Us Cold

Gotham's new culture war.

Despite the healthier-than-thou glow that the frigid glop imparts, frozen yogurt is more a man-made wonder rather than a marvel of nature—most stores use a proprietary powdered potion that can be called yogurt as much as American cheese can be called cheese.

Pinkberry’s signature product, Swirly Goodness®, ran afoul of the law in California for marketing itself as all-natural yogurt. California asserted that it was neither all-natural (indeed, it has artificial colors and flavors) nor yogurt, which according to that state’s laws must be made from milk fermented with particular bacteria and mixed offsite. Pinkberry’s original tart flavor (its most basic) contains nonfat milk, sugar, nonfat yogurt (pasteurized nonfat milk, live and active cultures), nonfat yogurt powder (nonfat milk, culture), fructose, dextrose, natural flavors, citric acid, guar gum, maltodextrin, mono- and diglycerides, and rice starch.

“Pinkberry is made with REAL nonfat milk, not from cows treated with rBST hormones, and REAL nonfat yogurt, among many other natural ingredients,” the company’s website assures worried readers who may be wondering: “Is Pinkberry ‘good’ for me?” In other words, frozen yogurt is based on a true story, a fictionalized version of a natural product. And while it is mostly non- or low-fat, with about half the calories of ice cream, it has essentially the same amount of sugar.

And almost everyone consumes more than the 3.5-ounce serving that allows businesses to brag about their healthy 100-calorie treat. After all, when you squirt 3.5 ounces into a 16- or 32-ounce tub, it looks like the dregs of someone else’s dessert. At Pinkberry, the store’s small size clocks in at 1.7 servings, or 209 calories and 32 grams of sugar for mango flavor. Of course, that’s if you don’t load your cup full of toppings, gluttonous or otherwise. Throw in a scoop of Butterfinger chunks and you’re in roughly the same calorie territory as Ben & Jerry’s, where the same-size serving (5.95 ounces) of Cherry Garcia ice cream has 330 calories and 31 grams of sugar. This is not to say that ice cream is good for you, but at least it never pretended to be.

But then, plausible deniability is all many of frozen yogurt’s biggest fans really want. They don’t want the truth, they just want the virtuous high of healthy eating as they pig out on a pile of cold, sweet ersatz creaminess.

The most persuasive argument The Observer heard in frozen yogurt’s defense was that it is delicious in its own right, not as an ice cream substitute, but as a different substance altogether. Yet even those who say they love frozen yogurt for its yogurty-ness have a hard time untangling the taste from the gleeful fantasy of being to eat whatever you want with no consequences.

“I find frozen yogurt to be more satisfying and refreshing than ice cream,” 23-year-old marketing director and frozen yogurt lover Callie Schweitzer told me when I reached out to her. “The greatest thing is that it feels guilt-free—I get to eat Oreos and cream frozen yogurt that’s low-calorie.”

Ms. Schweitzer said that her love affair with frozen yogurt started when she came to visit her sister as a teenager and they ate it together. She eats 16 Handles, and whenever she’s in California she loads up on Yogurtland, but her real passion is Tasti D-Lite—she loves it so much she wants to have a Tasti D-Lite truck at her wedding someday. (Tasti D-Lite doesn’t market itself as frozen yogurt, but rather as a dairy-based soft-serve frozen dessert.)

“I just prefer the taste and consistency of frozen yogurt, there’s something light and fluffy about it,” she said, adding, “It gives off the sense of being guilt-free, regardless of if it is.”

I can see how Los Angelenos might have been captivated when Pinkberry opened its first store in West Hollywood in 2005, but how the hell did this embarrassing fate befall New York?

Frozen yogurt was once the dessert of shopping malls and dining halls, a salad bar staple of Middle America, dubbed “the leg warmer of food trends” by The New York Times. Yogurt became popular in United States as part of the hippie/natural-eating/health-nut craze of the 1970s, but its first foray into the frozen dessert market failed because people found it too sour and, well, healthy.

It only recovered when chains like I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt and This Can’t Be Yogurt pumped the soft goop full of enough sugar and flavorings to disguise its yogurtness—the sour flavor that is a by-product of its fermentation. The appeal was clear: it didn’t taste like yogurt at all. And in the consumerist and pseudo-health-conscious 1980s, that decade of aerobics, the stuff sold like mad before the fad ended, largely relegating the chains to highway rest stops and shopping malls.

By the middle of the 2000s, however, Americans were in the midst of another healthy-living kick. Bikram yoga studios, a bastardized version of another hippie import, were appearing like worms after the rain. In 2005, two South Korean immigrants opened the first Pinkberry in L.A., which was such a madhouse that police issued 1,000 parking tickets.

Back then, pizza was still New York’s reigning street food. Greasy, satisfying and defiantly unhealthy, pizza is the perfect cap to a long night spent drinking. (A modest slice of New York-style has 270 calories and 10 grams of fat, but fortunately, few slices of pizza in New York are modest.) Served in warm, crowded pizza parlors where hands greedily reach over the counter to exchange crumpled dollar bills for a gooey slice, pizza always seemed to suit the energetic, messy mélange that was New York.

Pizza’s oily cousin, the hot dog, is another beloved blue-collar bastion of unassuming dining that was once a New York staple. Stopping by a sidewalk cart for a steaming tubesteak piled high with mustard and sauerkraut is an urban rite of passage. Best of all, the hot dog is consumed on the street, while one is bathed in exhaust fumes and subway steam and the occasional whiff of garbage—the aroma of New York. The New York where people were famously, endlessly hungry, a place where hunger of all kinds was a thing to celebrate rather than to smother.

Say what you will of cupcakes, and the cult of cute that made otherwise self-respecting people squee with delight, but at least they were unabashedly themselves (and, I’ll admit, I would happily eat a vat of buttercream frosting). Vaguely ridiculous and completely unhealthy, there are no illusions with a cupcake. It’s a little disgusting, and I feel a little disgusting for eating it, but I’m okay with that. Neither I nor the cupcake is playing any games.

Ice cream offers the same refreshing straightforwardness. But despite New Yorkers’ peripatetic embrace of donuts and bacon and countless other gourmet goodies that pack a caloric punch, ice cream shops seem to be vanishing from the city landscape. In no small part because they’ve been undermined by such a tidal wave of “healthy” alternatives. Not only frozen yogurt, but gelato and frozen fruit joints so numerous that it’s impossible to get an ice cream cone in this city without being confronted by shop after shop rubbing your nutritional sins in. Shouldn’t you be eating a low-fat, low-calorie frozen dessert instead? Don’t you feel guilty for wanting what you want?

The problem isn’t frozen yogurt shops; it’s their sudden ubiquity and what that ubiquity means for New York. In a city where space is always limited, this icy scourge is sucking up countless square feet that were once used for dive bars or bookstores or weird boutiques or music venues or a thousand other sorts of small, interesting businesses that vanish by the day from Manhattan’s retail landscape. Moreover, the deep-pocketed national companies eager to open yet another cutesy outpost in New York will happily spoon over the kinds of rents that smaller businesses can only dream of.

Yogurt and its kudzu-like growth are simply one of the flavorless by-products wrought by the Bloomberg administration’s push to further gentrify the most gentrified city in the country. In Bloomberg’s New York, it’s near impossible to dodge the feeling that a stodgy businessman is looking over one’s shoulder frowning dourly, that self-control and moderation are the key to greater productivity and ever larger piles of cash, that the only excesses should be excesses of wealth.

Indeed, frozen yogurt is the veritable embodiment of Bloomberg’s New York: a cleaner, safer, more expensive, tourist-friendly place where no one ever smokes, eats trans fats or slurps down a Big Gulp. Where we all eat heaps of frozen yogurt, patting ourselves on the back and indulging in the fantasy of choice when we ponder whether to top our mango mound with Cap’n Crunch, mochi balls, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup crumbles, kiwi or all of the above.

Sadly, frozen yogurt suits the new New York, the New York that has an insatiable appetite for things so bland—sports bars and spinning classes and a bank branch around every corner—that they don’t really stimulate or feed our appetites at all, so much as suppress them. These repressed desires, this trying to have it both ways but really having it neither way is, well, kind of suburban.

Never mind that the opposite ethos is what made this a city where everyone wanted to be in the first place: a city of people driven by their desires, who wanted to sharpen rather than blunt the edges of existence, who fled easier, more comfortable lives because trying was worth it even if they failed. The kind of people who weren’t trying to simulate an experience, but to have one. In other words: ice cream eaters.

kvelsey@observer.com