Dairy processors outside of the United States are not shy when it comes to promoting probiotic cultures and intestinal health. Package labels often boldly state specific probiotic strains, with many touting minimum cell counts. Labels not only hype the cultures inside the package, but also what those cultures can do once they are inside the body. Almost all incorporate the word probiotic, or a form of probiotic, in the brand or product name. And finally, many of these products contain other "functional" ingredients such as fiber, which can act as a prebiotic, as well as one or more of the many recognized food ingredient antioxidants.

Indeed, international marketers are much more progressive when it comes to formulating and marketing probiotic dairy foods. U.S. marketers can learn from their peers in other markets of the world, as they embark on a journey to introduce Americans to probiotics.

Within the past year, the all-American cranberry has become much more for folks overseas thanks to U.K.-based Ocean Spray International, a company that has been able to expand beyond juice and enter the dairy market. Packages of new Ocean Spray® Plus Probiotic Yogurt Drink boldly state that the beverage contains Lactobacillus acidophilus La-5, Bifidobacterium bifidum BB12 and fruit juice. The product is described as a combination of the natural goodness of cranberries with bio cultures for a positive balance of friendly bacteria in the digestive system.

French firm Group Danone recently launched a novel probiotic dairy concept in Belgium called Zen. This fermented milk drink contains an extra boost of magnesium, which is described as assisting with muscular health.

Zen has a subtle taste and a smooth texture, and comes packaged in a unique round daily dose bottle. Unlike Danone's leading probiotic daily dose drink Actimel®, Zen is designed to be consumed at the end of the day, according to the company. In fact, the term Zen is a reference to the Japanese teaching that the only way of achieving pure enlightenment is to exclude everything else. This comes from meditation, or more simply, relaxing one's muscles before going to sleep.

Zen makes no specific health claims. Right now it is positioned to grow on the heels of the success of Actimel, which had a global sales increase of 40% in the first quarter of 2004 following new flavor introductions. Actimel flavors include original, apple, mixed fruit, orange, strawberry and vanilla. Not all flavors are available in every market.

The Japanese have truly been leaders in the whole health and wellness movement, of which probiotics are an important segment. After all, Japan was the country to give birth to the daily dose probiotic drink Yakult® some 50 years ago. (Each daily dose bottle of Yakult contains 6.5 billion active bacteria of the strain Lactobacillus casei Shirota.) And since Yakult's introduction, the Japanese have made such products a part of their culture (excuse the pun). Both the regulated FOSHU (Foods for Specified Health Use) market and the unregulated market in Japan are growing at great speed. The unregulated market is led by functional beverages, and more specifically, by sports beverages. Yet that very first functional food category-fermented probiotic dairy drinks-has far from disappeared, with probiotics, prebiotics and fermented milks all together being the second largest unregulated category in Japan.

New entries into this category provide added value in the form of additional functional ingredients. For example, Kyodo Milk Industry Co., markets a fermented milk beverage called "Lactobacillus casei + Lactoferrin." As the name boldly states, the product contains both the probiotic L. casei and the bioactive milk protein lactoferrin. Lactoferrin is a natural for addition to a probiotic beverage, as the outcome of their function in the body is similar-they both stimulate the immune system, helping protect the body against infections, according to Kyodo.

Japan's Glico Dairy Products has added value in a different way-by incorporating indulgence with health. The company's new bifidobacteria-containing yogurt includes whole blueberries, which are a source of antioxidative polyphenols, and five fruit juices (lemon, apple, raspberry, grapefruit and passionfruit). Here's the kick: It is finished off with white rum.

Back in Europe, Mona GmbH, Austria, markets the Well & Active drink line, which is fermented milk and fruit juice (apple, mango and tropical light). Through the brand name and label declaration of "probiotic milk," consumers are aware that this beverage is associated with wellness.

Germany's Plus Vertriebs recently added ProBiotischer Drink to its Almsana yogurt brand. Plus Vertriebs is a probiotic-containing fermented milk that contains oligofructose, a fiber ingredient that acts synergistically with the probiotics, increasing their activity and efficacy.

In the Czech Republic, Valasske Mezirici dairy has rolled out a range of probiotic yogurt drinks targeted to different age groups. For young children, the yogurt drink is enriched with vitamins A, C and E. Cartons are adorned with the popular Czech cartoon character Pohadka. For on-the-go, young active adults who demand more out of their beverages, the Zdrave Osvezeni line has added fiber.

From Wales in the United Kingdom, Rachel's Organic Dairy Ltd., recently grew its product line with a fat-free probiotic yogurt range. The yogurts contain L. acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis.

Rachel's, along with many other Western European dairies, uses the term "bio" to convey the inclusion of live and active cultures to consumers. This is a term that could catch on in the United States, as it is a subtle way of communicating the addition of beneficial bacteria, without actually calling them out.

The subtleties used by Rachel's, which was owned by Horizon Organic when Horizon was purchased by Dean Foods Co., Dallas, earlier this year, may be just what the U.S. probiotic-containing dairy foods industry needs to get the category going.

Probiotics are already making their way into non-dairy foods in Europe. For example, in March, Arla Foods, Sweden, grew its Cultura® brand with a range of fermented products containing the active lactic acid culture, L. paracasei F19. Fortunately, some of the beverages are based on a blend of yogurt and juice; however, there is a non-dairy probiotic juice line. The probiotic strain F19 was developed and patented by Arla Foods. It is said to actively help maintain a healthy stomach.

The Cultura line directly competes with the ProViva® line from Skane Dairy, also of Sweden. The original ProViva fruit drink comes in a 1-liter carton that contains multiple servings. The new ProViva Shot! comes in 80ml daily dose "pots," as they are described in Sweden. The fruit-flavored shots use ground oatmeal as the base. The Shot is a concentrated form of ProViva and contains fives times as many bacteria as the equivalent quantity of ProViva fruit drink, which means around 250 million beneficial bacteria per milliliter.

All of the offerings in the ProViva line use Lactobacillus plantarum 299v, which the company says is a strain that has been scientifically tested on humans and shown to be safe and effective. According to the company, consuming ProViva on a regular basis helps maintain a healthy digestive system and keeps harmful bacteria at bay, thereby helping the immune system.

As you can see, probiotic-containing dairy foods are alive and thriving in other parts of the world. U.S. consumers deserve these health and wellness products, too. It is up to the U.S. dairy industry to deliver them. Now is the time to seize the opportunity and innovate.