Daniel Carasso, creator of Dannon yogurt, dies at 103

On Sunday, Daniel Carasso, founder and honorary chairman of Group Danone, died at his home in Paris. A titan of industry, he had the rare distinction of transforming both the world of business and the world of food.

Carasso was, in many ways, responsible for the current association between yogurt and France. With industry giants La Yogurt, Dannon, and Yoplait long occupying a central place in the American fermented milk pantheon, it's easy to forget that yogurt was a staple of Central Asian, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European diets long before the French got their hands on it. In fact, although Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent sent a batch of the food to the court of Francis I in the 1500's, the dish failed to catch on for almost four hundred years.

In 1919, Isaac Carasso, a Greek-born Jewish doctor, moved to Spain. Noticing that digestive illnesses were common in his adopted country, he opened a small yogurt business and prescribed the bacteria-laden milk product to sufferers of intestinal distress. Named "Danone," after his son Daniel, the company primarily sold through pharmacies and other medical outlets.

Danone would eventually become an iconic French brand, although it took the monicker "Dannon" when the Carassos moved to the United States in 1942. By then, Daniel had already taken control of the company, moving its headquarters to France in 1929. Although Danone started in Spain and eventually moved to the US, Carasso's connection with France was such that he took the company back across the ocean when World War II was over. By 2005, the French had so strongly associated with Danone that its proposed takeover by Pepsi led to claims that it was "a national icon, a treasure that must remain French owned."

A large part of this popularity lay in Carasso's modifications to yogurt. In the Greek formulation, it tends to be a rich, very thick concoction which is a little too filling to qualify as a snack. Additionally, while many Greeks eat yogurt with honey or other additives, Isaac Carasso's original western European version was an unflavored, somewhat grim experience, as demonstrated by its medicinal associations.

Daniel Carasso's yogurt was unstrained, which made it lighter and more refreshing than the Greek version. Moreover, his 1947 decision to add jam to the mix helped strip the food of its pharmaceutical connotations and helped make it an industry leader. By the time Carasso returned to France, yogurt was well on its way to becoming a popular snack food and dessert.

Over the ensuing decades, Carasso transformed Danone into "Group Danone," one of France's largest food conglomerates. Today, it is the top seller of fresh dairy products. In the process, he sold and later repurchased the American Dannon brand, eventually ensuring that all Carasso-based companies ended up under the Danone umbrella. Ironically, the company has also come full circle, offering "Activia" yogurt, which is designed to help with gastrointestinal problems. Isaac Carasso would be proud.

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