Global sales of fermented dairy beverages have skyrocketed.

Global sales of fermented dairy beverages have skyrocketed. This category includes drinkable yogurts, sometimes referred to as yogurt smoothies, as well as various ethnic drinks such as kefir (with roots in Russia) and lassi (from India). Annual global sales of drinkable yogurt increased 18% from mid-2005 to mid-2006, according to ACNielsen. In the United States, interest in the health and wellness benefits of probiotics as well as ethnic trends have helped spur category growth.

Most Americans think of drinkable yogurt as a sweetened beverage with fruit flavors or a meal replacement fortified with whey protein, vitamins and minerals. However, in some Middle Eastern countries, drinkable yogurt is a salty or carbonated beverage. Lassi, for instance, can be savory or sweet. Kefir, which contains both healthy bacteria and yeasts, is often fruit flavored.

Lifeway Foods pioneered kefir production in the United States and recently expanded its Probugs children’s line to include three flavors. In summer 2007, Lifeway also launched a lassi beverage. “I think Lifeway has been particularly great with taking niche or unknown dairy products and pioneering them and making them new categories in the United States,” notes Julie Smolyansky, Lifeway CEO. “I believe our growth will come from continued sales of our kefir line, expanding into new markets (such as food service), and bringing our new products to our existing customers.”

With Americans beginning to embrace the idea of healthy bacteria, probiotics are a growth driver for fermented dairy product consumption in the U.S. overall. In 2006-its first year-sales of Dannon Activia, a spoonable probiotic yogurt, surpassed $100 million. Following closely on the heels of what has been called one of the most successful food product launches ever, in 2007 Dannon introduced DanActive, a shot-sized yogurt beverage that contains L. casei Immunitas, a probiotic strain backed by 25 human, animal and in vitro studies that document its support of the body’s natural defenses.

Yogurt manufacturers have marketed many drinkable products toward children. Yoplait’s new Go-Gurt Smoothies are promoted as “gulpable, chuggable” and ideal for “kids who don’t want to stop having fun when it’s time for a snack.” Another product is carbonated Go-Gurt Fizzix. Recently, Dannon introduced several versions of its Danimals with LGG drinkable yogurt, including “xtreme” flavors and larger sizes for older kids.

MaryAnne Drake, PhD.

ACNielsen data show that Hispanics and families with children are frequent consumers of refrigerated yogurts, shakes and drinks. Research by MaryAnne Drake, PhD., associate professor, microbiology and sensory analysis, at North Carolina State University (NCSU), Raleigh, N.C., revealed that Hispanic study panel participants consumed drinkable yogurt more frequently than Caucasian or African-American participants. Natural fruit flavor and a sweet taste were general drivers of liking for all three ethnic groups.

Dairy is viewed as an ideal carrier for probiotics. Research is underway to discover and link important probiotic bacteria traits, growth and survival to gene sets that are positively influenced by the components of milk. Todd Klaenhammer, Ph.D., director, Southeast Dairy Foods Research Center, at NCSU, notes, “Lactobacilli have been consumed naturally in dairy foods for centuries. In addition, the intestinal lactobacilli, L. acidophilus and L. gasseri, are natural inhabitants of the human small intestine. These microbes have likely evolved to that niche during ingestion of milk by mammals. This leads us to believe that the components found in milk and/or fermented milk may positively influence the survival and behavior of probiotic cultures by preconditioning the expression of important genes. One interesting finding at this point is that when L. acidophilus is exposed to bile, it up-regulates lactose metabolism, suggesting that the organism has evolved to expect to see lactose in the GI tract.”

U.S. food manufacturers introduced more than 100 drinkable yogurts and smoothies in the past six years, according to the Global New Products Database. While the term “smoothie” is a fanciful name, a “drinkable yogurt” must meet the standards of identity for yogurt. This would mean, among other criteria, that the drink must contain a minimum of 8.25% milk solids, not fat, before the inclusion of bulky flavors such as fruits or juice (See CFR 131.200 – 206 for complete standards for yogurt including lowfat and nonfat variations.). 

To learn more about fermented dairy beverages, formulations and using probiotics,