Walking down the yogurt aisle at the supermarket has become the same kind of overwhelming, mind-numbing experience as the dizzying stroll down the cereal aisle.

There are, oh, about a million different brands, and each brand has a million different flavors. It used to be that our choices were plain, vanilla, and strawberry – OK, maybe banana, too. Now you can sink your spoon into pineapple coconut, boysenberry and caramel delight.

You can get fruit on the bottom or cookies on top. There’s high-protein Greek yogurt and low-carb regular yogurt.

What’s more, yogurt products targeted to children are increasingly showing up on store shelves, right at the littlest shoppers’ eye level. And they come in flavors like cotton candy as well as strawberry and banana.

Looking at the labels, it seems at first glance that some of these yogurts, which are supposed to represent a healthy choice, are filled with sugar.

How does a parent choose? When do the benefits of yogurt – active cultures, calcium and Vitamin D – get outweighed by the amount of sugar in the product?

“They really are getting ridiculous in that yogurt aisle with the sugary yogurts targeted to children,” says Brenda Bracy, a nutrition associate with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Eat Well Nutrition Education Program, which teaches children how to make better food choices.

“Of course, the message is always, less sugar is always better,” she said.

But like most stories, this one is more complicated than you might think. There’s a certain amount of naturally occurring sugar in yogurt, which makes reading the nutrition labels a little more challenging. A 6-ounce cup of plain yogurt contains 12 grams of sugar in the form of lactose.

And a cup of yogurt is not the same nutritionally as a soda or candy bar.

Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietician and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), points out that Americans are only getting half of the recommended three daily servings of dairy. Consumers need to think about their family’s overall diet, she said, when considering whether to put yogurt with added sugar into their grocery carts.

Sugar in yogurt is not the same as sugar in colas or other sweet snacks, Salge Blake said, because yogurt provides better overall nutrition.

“I don’t want to scare people into thinking yogurt is a big source of added sugar in the diet, which it’s not,” Salge Blake said. “The number-one added sugars in the diet are sweetened soft drinks and also grain-based desserts – cookies and cakes and things like that.”

But how many children do you know who stay away from sodas, cookies and candy on a daily basis? It doesn’t help that American kids’ palates have been programmed for the taste of sugar from all the processed foods they eat.

Bracy has to find clever ways to get the children she works with to even try plain yogurt.

“We’ve noticed the older kids, a lot of them will turn up their noses at plain yogurt,” Bracy said. “One of my favorite snacks I like to do with the kids is a pyramid yogurt parfait where it has all of the food groups except vegetables. And some of the kids – not all of them, but a good majority of them – will say, ‘Ooh, ooh, that’s too sour. I don’t like it.’ “

So how much sugar is too much in these yogurts targeted to young consumers?

Erin Dow, expert chef for the Scarborough-based Guiding Stars program, which awards stars to foods based on their nutritional value, says the Guiding Stars nutritionist recommends a rule of thumb of no more than 30 grams of sugar per 8 ounces of yogurt.

Most children’s yogurts come in 2-, 3- and 4-ounce servings – most commonly 4-ounce cups – so that’s a limit of about 15 grams for 4 ounces.

It can get really tricky and confusing reading the nutrition labels on yogurt, but it’s important to try, not only for sugar content but also for things like artificial ingredients. The brands vary widely, but some manufacturers do seem to be making an effort to make their products healthier.

Yoplait, for example, just reformulated its Trix yogurt so it now contains no artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners or high-fructose corn syrup. (The yogurt is colored with vegetable juices, beta carotene and turmeric extract.)

Yes, you have to watch your kids’ eyes pop when they see that silly rabbit, famous for pushing sugary cereal to children. But a 4-ounce cup of the reformulated yogurt contains a total of 14 grams of sugar, which meets the Guiding Stars guideline.

“A lot of manufacturers are catching on that it’s not just health-nut granola moms that are worried about things like dyes and additives,” Dow said. “I think new labeling instructions or nutritional navigation systems will make the sugar content more transparent, too, over time.”

Salge Blake said there’s been a lot of discussion about changing labeling requirements to include added sugar.

“This way people wouldn’t get confused when they saw the yogurt container, and they could separate out what is naturally occurring and what is added sugar,” she said.

Meanwhile, parents will have to decide for themselves which is better: A 2.5-ounce tube of YoPlait’s Go-Gurt with 70 calories, red and blue dyes, artificial flavors and 10 grams of sugar, or a 2-ounce tube of Stonyfield’s organic YoKids Squeezers with 60 calories, no artificial flavors or colors, but nearly as much sugar as the Go-Gurt?

Still confused? Here are some tips from the experts on how to get yogurt into your children without filling them up with sugar:

n Start out feeding your children plain yogurt when they are babies so they will adapt to it and don’t get used to the taste of sugary yogurts.

“When they’ve grown up on the sweetened stuff, the plain is just not going to appeal to them,” Bracy said.

n There are 4 grams of sugar in a teaspoon. Think about that when you’re shopping for yogurt and looking at labels, and put it in the context of your child’s overall diet.

Dow sends flavored yogurts to school with her own children, but it’s part of an overall lunch that might include snap peas, whole grain crackers and a banana. “It’s not going with an orange and strawberries and gummi snacks,” she said.

n Bracy recommends mixing half and half a flavored yogurt like vanilla or strawberry with plain so the kids get a snack that’s slightly sweetened and that they’ll actually eat, but the sugar content is not over the top.

n Are those yogurts with cookies on top inherently evil? Dow allows her own children to have them, but only as an occasional dessert or mid-afternoon snack, not as breakfast or lunch.

n Add your own sweeteners to plain yogurt. Try honey, fresh fruit or a little unsweetened applesauce. Yes, it’s sugar, but at least you’ll be in control of how much you use. And you’ll be adding vitamins and minerals instead of just the empty calories you get with sugar.

Bracy has even added mandarin oranges and a sprinkling of cocoa powder to the yogurt she makes for the children she works with, and they eat it up.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad