I had a relative who lived to be 99, according to family lore, by eating yogurt every day. I'm starting to wonder if there might be something to that theory—last week, Daniel Carasso, the man credited with popularizing yogurt as a snack food in Europe and North America, died at the age of 103. Carasso was founder of the Danone company in France, known as Dannon when it came to the United States. If you were born in this country before about 1980, Dannon is probably the only brand of yogurt you remember from your childhood.
According to a press release from Danone, Carasso was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1905. His Sephardic Jewish family sought refuge from persecution in Spain four centuries earlier. Yogurt was a popular part of the cuisine of Greece and a few other nearby countries, but was little-known elsewhere.
In 1916 Carasso's father, Isaac, decided to move the family back to Spain, and was struck by the number of intestinal disorders suffered by children there. He was inspired by the research of Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist Elie Metchnikoff, who believed that the lactic-acid bacilli found in yogurt held life-extending properties.
Isaac started making yogurt in 1919 using cultures developed at the Pasteur Institute, and sold it as a health aid through pharmacies. He named the product Danone, for the diminutive form of his son's name, Daniel, in Catalan. When Daniel grew up he went to business school, and then attended a training program in Paris at the Pasteur Institute to learn more about bacteriology and fermentation. He launched Danone in Paris in 1929, again emphasizing yogurt's health benefits. Although it was the beginning of the Great Depression, his business thrived.
At a press conference in April celebrating the 90th anniversary of Danone, according to his obituary in the New York Times, Carasso said, “I barely realized that there was a financial crisis raging around me. I was too caught up in trying to find dairy stores to sell my product.”
Carasso's success in France lasted until 1941, when the Nazis arrived and he was forced to flee to the United States. He formed a partnership with family friends and bought a Greek yogurt company in the Bronx. The business didn't thrive, though, until 1947, when they added strawberry jam to the yogurt to make it more palatable to the American population. Sales skyrocketed, new flavors were added, and the company—with the Americanized name Dannon—was bought by Beatrice Foods in 1959. Carasso returned to Europe to restart Danone there, and eventually bought Dannon back, in 1981.
Today the company is the number-one seller of fresh dairy products in the world, with a revenue of nearly $19 billion in 2008. But it's no longer alone on the dairy shelf. The average supermarket now sells at least half a dozen brands of yogurt in countless varieties. In an interesting twist, one of the latest foodie trends is the preference for thick, often unflavored, Greek-style yogurts.