Research indicates that the majority of Americans finally understand how consuming probiotics can make a positive contribution to health. 

Research indicates that the majority of Americans finally understand how consuming probiotics can make a positive contribution to health. What the burgeoning category is faced with are irresponsible marketers calling unproven strains and applications “probiotics.” Generic use, as well as abuse of the term, will likely lead to consumer confusion about what products have been clinically proven and their strain-specific benefit.

What Americans know

Washington, D.C.-based International Food Information Council (IFIC), commissioned Cogent Research, Cambridge, Mass., to conduct the 2009 Functional Foods/Foods for Health Consumer Trending Survey, a quantitative study to measure Americans’ attitudes toward, awareness of and interest in functional foods. Between May 11 and 20, 1,005 U.S. adults age 18 older were randomly invited to participate in a 20-minute Web-based survey.

Consumers were asked, on an aided basis, whether they are aware of certain food components, their corresponding food sources and their associated health benefits. The most recognizable food/health associations continue to be those related to bone health, cardiovascular disease, cancer and benefits associated with fiber. With the exception of a few associations, awareness increased significantly since 2007. For example, two key associations included probiotics for maintaining healthy digestive and immune systems (72% vs. 58% in 2007 and 71% vs. 54% in 2007, respectively; see chart on p. 68).

Of the 72% of consumers aware of the relationship of probiotics and a healthy digestive system, 38% said they are already consuming probiotics for this reason, while 47% are likely or somewhat likely to consume. Of the 71% aware of how probiotics maintain a healthy immune system, 41% said they are already consuming probiotics for this reason, while 42% are likely of somewhat likely to consume.

Research from independent market analyst Datamonitor, London, suggests that American’s relationship with probiotics is at its infancy. Indeed, manufacturers are responding to consumer interest by incorporating probiotics into more foods that people eat every day.

“People find these products appealing and, more importantly, they like how they taste,” says Mark Whalley, consumer markets analyst at Datamonitor. “Digestive health has strong links with immunity health, which means that consumers feel better after eating their probiotic yogurts. This is what keeps them coming back for more.

“The real success of these products has been the way in which consumers have adopted them for a ‘daily dosing’ routine,” he adds.

Probiotic claims in Europe

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is making it very difficult for marketers of probiotics to make health claims. Many feel the approval system is much too tough, but, with the liberties currently taken by some companies in the States, strict regulations are better than marketing abuse that leads to consumer confusion, and eventually distrust.

EFSA emphasizes the importance of accurately demonstrating nutritional and physiological effects with “appropriate outcome measures of that claimed effect.” Claims must be sufficiently defined and strictly related to the evidence presented.

“The claimed effect needs to be specific enough to be testable and measurable by generally accepted methods,” according to EFSA. “For example, ‘gut health’ is too general (unclear what measure can be used) but ‘transit time’ is specific (measurable by generally accepted methods).”

EFSA emphasizes the importance of targeted studies carried out on the food/constituent; the importance of human data; conditions of use; relevant study groups and usable animal models. “As human data are central for the substantiation of a claim, particular attention should be given to ensuring that the human studies presented are pertinent to the claim,” states EFSA.

Back in the States, Americans are embracing probiotics and, for the most part, are not cynical about the claims being made - yet. In fact, only a minority (14.4%) say they firmly disbelieve the claims that these products make, according to Datamonitor. 

Application opportunities

Though probiotics can now be found in all types of foods and beverages, dairy products continue to be the leading delivery vehicle. At the IFT 2009 Annual Meeting and Food Expo, Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), Rosemont, Ill., sampled an English toffee reduced-fat ice cream with probiotics for digestive health. The formulation includes the Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM strain. According to DMI, post-production viable cell count was quantified as 5x108 bacteria per half-cup serving.

In addition to adding probiotic bacteria directly to ice cream, it is possible to include the cultures in the topping/coating or the inclusion. For example, there’s a new chocolate ingredient made through a proprietary process that comes enhanced with probiotic cultures. Available in dark and milk chocolate, the ingredient resembles the sensory profile of non-probiotic chocolate, as well as has a long shelf life with no refrigeration required. The special production system ensures a homogenous blend of probiotics in chocolate within a restricted temperature range.

Cheese is another category where more and more marketers are starting to add probiotics. Refrigeration along with the acidic nature of cheese renders it an ideal delivery vehicle for beneficial bacteria. 

With the popularity of probiotic products on the rise, companies making products with the bacterial strains are currently working on industry standards to protect the integrity of their products, including storage directions, labeling of bacteria strain, directions for use and company contact information. If you do probiotics, do them right!