What was once thought of as sour-tasting glop is looking to position itself at the sweet spot of American dining trends.

As U.S. consumers demand healthier, better-tasting, natural foods with added benefits and perhaps a kick of protein, yogurt is poised to break out of the breakfast bowland become a go-to favorite for snackers and occasional-treat seekers.

Total U.S. retail sales were $8.8 billion in 2017, up from $8 billion five years earlier, according to the market research firm Packaged Facts. It is forecast to leap to $9.8 billion by 2022.

“It’s one of the most flexible foods sold in stores. It can be breakfast. It can [be] a snack. It can be dessert. In a pinch, a whole meal replacement,” said grocery shopping analyst John Karolefski, who blogs at http://www.grocerystories.com. “People can eat yogurt sitting at home at their table or on the go.”

That’s what the industry is banking on to change yogurt culture.

Much of the growth over the last decade was fueled by Greek yogurt, introduced by Chobani in 2007. For decades earlier, traditional yogurt with roots in numerous ancient cultures around the world was thought of as a specialty item sold in health food-stores. By the 1970s, it had become more mainstream, entering the purview of dieters, a position solidified the next decade with artificially-sweetened and low-fat versions.

Yogurt now wends its way from bowel-inspiring Activia and kids’ GoGurt tubes to bifurcated mix-in versions and premium dessert-esque Liberté. Yogurt serves as the base for ready-to-drink shakes, freezes into faux ice creams and jukes over to savory as a replacement for sour cream.

Today, there are French-style yogurt, like Yoplait’s glass-potted Oui, launched in the summer of 2017; Icelandic yogurt, such as Icelandic Provisions’ Skyr and siggi’s, which global dairy giant Lactalis bought in January; and even Australian yogurt – but spelled with an H tucked between the G and the U – as fronted by noosa. But expect more change.

Greek yogurt is strained and contains more protein than traditional yogurt, while French yogurt is known for its creaminess and is settled in small pots, rather than giant vats. Icelandic yogurt is heavily strained and made from more milk than usual and Australian yogurt is not strained and noted for its sweet creaminess.

“Yogurt is not growing at the clip it was, a natural progression of a maturing category,” said Chobani’s chief marketing and commercial officer Peter McGuinness. “We‘re still very bullish on yogurt.”

Yogurt consumption in America is lower than in Canada and Europe, but he said he envisions sales as high as $13 billion, “if consumers have the right options to eat throughout the day.” To many, yogurt remains an a.m. staple with 80 percent of it consumed then, though that’s dropped from 93 percent three years ago.

Recasting itself as a snack, not just part of breakfast, yogurt hitches itself to the growing grazing trend, which finds more people eating mini-meals and snacks throughout the day. To expand beyond dairy-case denizens, yogurt companies, both international heavy hitters and smaller niche brands, are looking beyond traditional supermarkets to capture potential yogurt eaters where they are noshing, like food service, convenience stores and airports. About 60 percent of yogurt sales in 2017 were from supermarkets and grocery stores, Packaged Facts found.

Another growing avenue is kid-centric yogurt, like Chobani’s new Gimmies line. McGuinness said yogurt’s penetration among kids is a fraction of adults, a $1.5-billion market that’s growing in mid-single digits.

As millennials have children, the potential for this subcategory expands. This much-coveted demographic also has turbocharged another auxiliary branch of the category – plant-based yogurt.

According to Danone North America CEO Mariano Lozano, this is one of the biggest growth areas. Today, it is about 2 percent of the total yogurt category, but could grow to become as much as 10 percent of it. Danone’s dairy-free line-up includes Silk, made from soy; Vega, made from cashews; a coconut milk Oikos, that will debut in the U.S. in January; and a kids version is coming at the end of the second quarter.

“It’s becoming hotter and hotter in the market; It’s very linked to the flexitarian trend,” he said, referring to those who eat a mostly vegetarian diet but occasionally consume meat or fish.

Amid complaints about pricing and sugar content, the industry understands it must propel itself fast and soon. The global market research firm Mintel projects total yogurt sales will reach $8.2 billion by 2023, down 3.5 percent from this year

“Yogurt companies are innovating their products to better appeal to changing
consumer preferences,” the Mintel report read. “However, consumers are trading among yogurt brands/styles, not increasing their total yogurt consumption. The amount of yogurt consumers eat has fallen year-over-year.”

The company’s survey of adult yogurt buyers this past spring found that they consumed an average of 7.32 servings in the past 30 days, down from 7.45 in 2017.

Yolanda Marant eats more yogurt than most Americans – daily or every other day – and that was after her doctor told her to stop eating it two or three times daily. She likes the single-serving containers of Greek yogurt she buys for around $1.50 each.

“Sometimes, it’s a snack. Sometimes, it’s breakfast,” said the 39-year-old gospel singer from Charlotte, North Carolina. “I don’t buy cakes and cookies, so what I like about yogurt is it gives me the option to have something sweet that’s healthy.”

Though Marant wants to see more flavor options, better tasting low-calorie yogurts and less sugar in kids’ yogurts, she views the pros as far outweighing the cons – and would like others to acknowledge them, too.

“It will grow as time moves forward,” she said. “I don’t know if people truly understand the true benefits of yogurt for your digestive system and weight loss.”

Zlati Meyer, USA TODAY