What opportunities exist for formulating new products in the mini-drink category?

They say good things come in small packages. Dr. Minro Shirota introduced the first probiotic mini-drink, Yakult, in Tokyo in 1935. In the mid-1990s, the category took off in Europe, spurred by Danone’s 1994 launch of Actimel, a probiotic dairy drink that claims to help strengthen the body’s natural defenses. Danone introduced the same product in the United States under the brand name Dannon DanActive, first on a regional basis in 2004, followed by a national launch in 2007.

Numerous other companies around the world, including Valio Ltd., Yoplait, Nestlé and Unilever, have introduced similar products in small plastic bottles, typically 100 milliliters or less, and often termed daily “shots.” Most of these products include some type of fermented milk or other dairy ingredients.

While the initial functional focus was on probiotics known to boost immunity and improve digestive health, the category has grown to include offerings that claim to lower cholesterol, decrease blood pressure, control hunger and assist with weight control.

Functional categories

Let’s start where mini-drinks began, with products that claim to boost immunity. The functional ingredient may be a specific strain of probiotic bacteria, such as Lactobacillus casei DN11401, marketed as L. casei Immunitas or L. casei Defensis. Dannon’s Web site explains that this product acts as a barrier against harmful bacteria and regulates the digestive tract’s immune system. The Yoplait Essence Immunity Boost, recently introduced in the United Kingdom, also contains zinc and iron.

Another important category is heart health, including products that claim to lower cholesterol and decrease blood pressure. Unilever currently sells two product lines encompassing seven flavors in the United States. The Promise Activ Supershots contain natural cholesterol-lowering plant sterols, while the Supershots marketed for blood pressure are a good source of potassium.

Chris Wilson, principal food scientist with Unilever, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., notes: “In the development of this line, Dairy Management Inc. provided assistance with formula and process issues, stability measurement of prototypes and ideas to reduce air incorporation and foam production. Also, valuable information was provided on differences between various dairy ingredients.”

Other products in this category include Vita ProActiv in Norway with plant sterols and Benecol tehojuoma shots with plant stanols in Finland.

Probiotics are also the key component of the digestive health category, but different bacteria are used to support the claim. The Yoplait Essence Healthy Digestion product contains the bacteria Bifidobacterium, BB-12 and two types of soluble dietary fiber, inulin and oligofructose, for both a probiotic and prebiotic boost. Others in this category include My Whey probiotic shots by Chr. Hansen, which were introduced in Germany in 2007 and more recently in the United States.

A newer market category is satiety and weight management. In the United Kingdom, Unilever introduced SlimFast Hunger Shot with milk protein and fiber, which is marketed to help consumers eat less between meals. Yoplait also introduced an Essence Lose Weight. 

Hormel Health Labs has Healthy Shot high-protein beverages, which are touted as a protein source for patients with a poor appetite. The “high” version contains 12 grams of protein, plus nutritive sweeteners, for a total of 110 calories; the “double” version contains 24 grams of protein, with no nutritive sweeteners, for a total of 100 calories. 

Formulation challenges

Food and dairy companies must decide if the product will be sold as a food or as a dietary supplement. Fermented dairy-based shots are typically sold as foods. Either way, the company must be prepared with solid scientific evidence to support the product claims and ensure adequate levels of the functional ingredients are present.

Next, they must decide if the products will be shelf-stable or refrigerated. This may be dictated by the inclusion of probiotics, as some products without probiotics can be hot-filled and stored without refrigeration. Shots typically range between 20 and 100 calories per serving, and products intended for weight management often incorporate a non-nutritive sweetener.

The small serving size creates limitations on solubility of functional ingredients. For products touting protein, selecting a partially hydrolyzed whey protein may increase the amount of total protein per serving.

Food companies that sell outside the United States also should be aware that a new category is going to be established in the Codex Standards for Fermented Milks. These standards are still being finalized, but will include a list of ingredients that may be added to fermented milks and a minimum amount of fermented milk that must be included in products in this category.

Growth potential

Sales of functional dairy drinks continue to rise on the global market. According to Zenith International, sales in Western Europe, the United States and Japan are estimated to reach €6.25 million by 2011. Western Europe alone accounts for more than 55% of the market. In the States, recent grocery channel data from Information Resources Inc. showed the mini-drink category comprises an estimated 21% of refrigerated yogurt drinks, with products claiming to support immunity, heart health and digestive health constituting the bulk of category sales. Newer areas to explore include brain function, joint health, skin moisture and beauty, as well as products specific to seniors and children. DMI is building a database of companies with mini-bottle co-packing capability, and welcomes inquiries in this area from both co-packers and food manufacturers. 

Sharon Gerdes works with Dairy Management Inc. to promote the use of dairy ingredients in food and beverage formulations. Contact DMI’s Dairy Technical Support Hotline at 800/248-8829 or techsupport@innovatewithdairy.com.