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Instant yoghurt’s Kiwi origins

Yoghurt started becaming a staple of the NZ diet in the 70s.
The name is of Turkish origin, derived from yog, “meaning something like ‘condense’ or ‘intensify’, which is pretty much what happens to milk when you let it curdle into yoghurt”, according to bonappetit.com.

Just as, to quote Jonathan Swift, he was a bold man that first ate an oyster, so it must have been someone with a decided taste for gustatory novelty who thought it would be good to give curdled milk a go.

Whatever its etymology and origins, the practice has been around a long time, with some accounts tracing its invention to around 5000BC in Mesopotamia.

Despite this global tradition of many millennia, yoghurt in New Zealand is a relatively new menu item – which is strange, since our long dairy heritage might cause you to think making yoghurt here would have been a no-strainer from about a week after cows first turned up. But according to Te Ara, the Encylopedia of New Zealand, “Government regulations for yoghurt production were first issued in 1951.”

Who on earth consumed yoghurt locally in the 1950s? Crackpots and nudists, I imagine. Lifestyles didn’t incorporate much in the way of alternatives round here until the late 60s and, Te Ara goes on to say, “it was not much eaten until around the 1970s”.

The most popular yoghurt products in our supermarkets originally were highly sweetened, flavoured pottles of mystery that made an easy lunchbox filler or were eaten by people convincing themselves they were having a healthy snack when it was anything but.

They were a long way from the smoothie-friendly tubs of highly probiotic Greek-style yoghurt that are increasingly in vogue. As recently as 2016, food authority Ray McVinnie could write: “Most of what is still sold in New Zealand is sugary, artificially thickened dairy-based gloop that only vaguely resembles traditional natural yoghurt.”

Most, but not all. For New Zealand can lay claim to its own star on the yoghurt innovation walk of fame. As consumers sought out more natural yoghurt products, high-school physics teacher Len Light arrived to provide supply for the demand. EasiYo was Light’s solution to the growing demand for the product in his own family, which included eight children who just loved their yoghurt. There had to be a cheaper way. He was also aware that store-bought products had preservatives, and there was no way of telling how fresh – and therefore how healthy – it was.

It is a classic bloke-in-a-shed story, except his physics expertise meant Light had the kind of scientific mind needed to keep experimenting until his product was just right, producing an instant yoghurt process that worked every time. What he came up with couldn’t be simpler: a container, a sachet and water. A few simple steps and there’s your yoghurt, now available in more than 20 countries.

The preservative-free product was launched at the Auckland Home Show in 1992, and was an immediate success. There were six flavours at first, and they didn’t beat anyone over the head with the health message: Passionfruit, Raspberry, Banana, Strawberry, Jaffa and Marshmallow. Awards, exports and new flavours soon followed. By the end of 1997, it is claimed, one in three New Zealand households had an EasiYo Yoghurt Maker.

In 2009, the company was sold to Westland Milk Products. EasiYo now sits alongside the Hayes wire strainer, the bungy cord and the split atom as New Zealand inventions that are known around the world. 

This article was first published in the January 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.