Although dairy-based products containing active cultures of beneficial bacteria-probiotics-have been around for thousands of years, American consumers haven't always embraced them. That may be about to change, says Bill Haines, v.p., product innovation, Dairy Management Inc.™ (DMI), who recently discussed probiotics and their future with Tools for Innovation.

Q: When do you think the mainstream public will start seeking out probiotics?

A: It could be very soon. But they may not be called "probiotics." Americans may associate live bacteria with causing illness, not helping prevent it. So there's an education process that needs to take place.

Once Americans start enjoying probiotic products though, I think this is a trend with real staying power. The research suggesting that consuming probiotic bacteria can have significant health benefits is exciting. Furthermore, in other parts of the world, people have been enjoying these types of products very enthusiastically for decades. So that's an indication of the popularity that probiotics could have in this country. I think it's a trend that's here to stay.

Q: What dairy products present the greatest opportunity for probiotics?

A: Yogurts and drinkable yogurt-type products are the easiest to formulate using probiotic bacteria. They're a natural vehicle because that type of fermented dairy product is completely compatible with probiotic cultures. Theoretically, you could incorporate probiotics into other dairy products like sour cream or cheese, but we haven't done a lot of work in that area yet.

Q: What are the special challenges of probiotics research?

A: First and foremost, I think there's a need for further clinical research to substantiate health benefits for probiotics. Then, we're investigating to see if a link exists between these cultures and dairy products, to understand if dairy is the best natural vehicle for probiotics and if it may actually help turn on probiotic activity. Some of that research is under way now.

Q: Probiotics and dairy were first linked more than two millennia ago. Do you think this natural combination will last another 2000 years?

A: Yes, I do-because dairy and probiotics just go together. I think it's one of those serendipitous discoveries of the ancients. And what will really cement the relationship is if our research clearly links dairy and probiotics as the best way to maximize any health benefits.

Q: How can dairy processors get assistance with formulating and marketing probiotic-containing dairy foods?

A: Contact DMI by calling 800/248-8829. DMI offers a comprehensive technical support system that features the services of two dairy applications labs, six research centers and more than 100 experts in applications, technology, research, marketing and nutrition. We want to partner with companies to help them innovate.