The frozen yogurt trend has been going strong for years now, and it shows no signs of slowing down. And while it might seem like if you’ve been to one chain fro-yo shop — with its self-serve format and wide variety of toppings and add-ons — you’ve been to them all, some chains are much better than others. We analyzed 13 of the country’s most popular purveyors of frozen yogurt, and you might be surprised by which ones came out on top.
Despite all the fun flavors and bright colors, fro-yo isn’t an easy product to make. To put it in the simplest of terms, it’s made from combining cultured milk with sweetener, a thickening agent, and some sort of flavoring. Then it’s pasteurized, fermented, and frozen. Tasti D-Lite, one of the original and longest-standing frozen yogurt chains, says that they typically use water, nonfat milk, sugar, corn syrup, cream, guar gum, locust bean gum, and carrageenan to make their frozen yogurts. TCBY uses milk that’s been cultured with live and active cultures like B. lactis, L. acidophilus, and L. bulgaricus, and in Red Mango’s ingredient list you’ll find nonfat yogurt that’s made with skim milk, natural flavor, guar gum, live and active cultures, filtered water, pure cane sugar, and other natural flavors. Some chains find loopholes around their development process, however: The Food and Drug Administration mandates that to be considered a "yogurt," a product has to be produced using two bacteria cultures, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophiles, though it does not specify that the bacteria needs to be present in the final product. Thus, some brands of frozen yogurt cannot technically qualify as "yogurt" — but it still can still be called "frozen yogurt."
The exact recipe varies from place to place, but in general, you’re going to find much less fat and much more protein in fro-yo than in traditional ice cream. Typically, when fat is eliminated, more sugar is added, but if you pay attention to the serving size, frozen yogurt is a healthy alternative as far as desserts go. On average, in a four-ounce serving you’ll find about 17 grams of sugar, 100 calories, and two grams of fat, though this varies depending on the company.
It can be quite overwhelming to walk into a frozen yogurt store — take the bright décor at TCBY, the club music at Cups, and the iPads at Let’s Yo. Even the flavors can be outrageous, like spicy Aztec chocolate, maple bacon donut, and ginger lemonade.
In order to assemble our ranking, we looked at 13 popular fro-yo chains and judged them according to the following criteria: composition of their base material (was it made with real ingredients as opposed to powders or essences?), variety and creativity of flavors, selection and freshness of toppings, and the atmosphere of the shop itself. Chains considered were 16 Handles, Cups, Red Mango, Let’s Yo, Yogurberry, TCBY, Tasti D-Lite, Pinkberry, Sweet Frog, Yogurtland, Menchies, Peachwave, and Orange Leaf.
Each chain delivered a different experience. Read on to learn which chains are the best, and which aren’t worth your time and money.
#13 Orange Leaf
Orange Leaf is an Oklahoma-based frozen-yogurt chain that started in 2008. They’ve expanded quickly, with over 300 locations around the world. They have franchises in Australia and Asia as well. Orange Leaf stays true to their name with their choice of décor: The color orange features prominently throughout each store.
The flavor variety at Orange Leaf is slightly disappointing, with a very run-of-the-mill selection; the most creative flavors available are chocolate raspberry, birthday cake, peppermint, red velvet, chocolate toffee, and pink lemonade. We were also disappointed by the fact that their offerings don’t have live active cultures, and instead contain sweeteners, milk solids, yogurt powder, and thickeners. The yogurt is also higher in fat and sugar than its counterparts; a four-ounce serving of their vanilla frozen yogurt contains 160 calories, four gram of fat, and 24 grams of sugar.
The décor at YogurBerry is a little tacky and unoriginal, and its options are limited. They have plenty of fresh fruit for toppings, but none are different from the ones that you generally find elsewhere. The nutrition behind a serving is excellent, however, with 100 percent natural fro-yo and “vast quantities” of Lactobacillus bifidus, according to their website. In a four-ounce serving, YogurBerry’s frozen yogurt contains 100 calories, zero grams fat, and 16 grams of sugar, and it costs $0.49 an ounce.