The cultured products segment has been riding the coattails of its fellow dairy products, but not for long.

Compared to many parts of Europe, where the health benefits of live cultures are widely recognized, the U.S. yogurt market is still playing catch-up, according to a study conducted by Chicago-based Mintel. Yet, yogurt consumption continues to grow as more Americans learn of the health benefits. In fact, Mintel predicts that the cultured product segment, yogurt in particular, will grow 28% through 2014.

That’s because many of today’s processors are growing up and establishing a more secure place on the shelf through a variety of clean-label ingredients, exotic flavors and on-the-go packaging options.

“Yogurt continues to rank as the fastest growing segment in dairy, and through ongoing product innovation and consumer education about the benefits of yogurt, such as Activia, there is still significant opportunity for category growth,” says Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations for The Dannon Co., White Plains, N.Y. “Proactive health products, such as probiotics, continue to grow across the category, and innovation continues to drive sales in the U.S., particularly through new products, such as our Greek-style yogurt, and new product formats and usage occasions, such as Activia desserts.”

To best appeal to a wide spectrum of consumers looking for better-for-you options, Neuwirth says, Dannon expanded its Activia line to now include Activia Desserts. Designed to help regulate the digestive system, these flavored yogurts are sold in 4-ounce cups and are available in Strawberry Cheesecake, Blueberry Cheesecake, Vanilla Bean and Peach Cobbler.

For its part, Green Valley Organics based in Sebastopol, Calif., introduced a line of lactose-free, real-dairy yogurts under the Green Valley Organics brand. These certified-humane, low-fat, kosher-certified, gluten-free yogurts contain 10 live active cultures and come in Plain, Blueberry, Honey, Strawberry and Vanilla flavors.

“We view the greatest opportunity for growth in our categories as continually innovating with excellence,” says Ken Strunk, general manager and CEO. “Our existing and new products have to taste great and live up to our brand standards of sustainability and fair-trade business practices. We don’t need another ‘me too’ in the cultured products category – our products must demonstrate differentiation, whether it’s lactose free like our new Green Valley Organics brand, made from a special blend of three antioxidant-rich superfruits as in our Blueberry Pomegranate Acai kefir, or features the added health benefits found in our new Redwood Hill Farm Wildflower Honey goat milk yogurt.”

Green Valley Organics also presented a team of kefirs under its Redwood Hill Farms brand. These lactose-free kefirs come in Traditional Plain and Blueberry Pomegranate Acai flavors housed in a 32-ounce bottle and can be used as a thick and creamy substitute in beverages, cold soup, muffins, pancakes, waffles, coleslaw and salad dressing or as a topping for fresh fruit, baked potatoes or as a marinade.

“Customers are facing tons of quality choices these days and we need to provide them with compelling reasons why they should try and adopt our products,” Strunk says. “We’re helping customers try our products with in-store demos as well as out in the community at local ‘green living’ fairs, food blogger get-togethers and at media events.”

On the other hand, processors are developing products that cater to more of a day occasion, not just as a component to breakfast, says Jim Nolan, chief executive officer of the YoCrunch brand, a division of The Breyers Yogurt Co., Naugatuck, Conn.

“Many of today’s trends are continuations, not just new trends but emerging sub-trends, especially in the category of health and wellness,” Nolan says. “Consumers have higher awareness levels of ingredients and what’s in the products, especially with regards to the yogurt category. Specifically, nutritional awareness is continuing to show itself and levels of calcium, protein, low fat and no fat are demonstrated daily.”

As a result, Breyers created YoCrunch Fruit Parfaits, which consist of a thick layer of fruit, smooth and creamy vanilla low-fat yogurt equipped with a separate topping of premium granola. At 120 calories per serving, these fruit parfaits come in Strawberry, Blueberry and Peach flavors and are designed to be eaten at various parts of the day, Nolan says.

“[The parfaits] take advantage of portion control, calorie count and health and wellness,” he adds.

Also in the portion-control mix are new YoCrunch 100-calorie four-packs, available in Cheesecake with Graham Cookie Pieces, Strawberry with 100% Natural Low-fat Granola, Vanilla with Chocolate Chip Cookie Pieces, Vanilla with Chocolate Crème Cookie Pieces and Vanilla with Nestlé Buncha Crunch Candy Pieces. They are naturally sweetened with Truvia rebiana and are a good source of Vitamins A and D.

“There is a message through bringing continued innovation and going after that incremental side of consumer growth angle. Outside of the traditional day parts is where our consumers are moving,” Nolan says. “We’re bringing incrementality to the category, giving it natural growth, but it can be taken advantage of by taking part of different areas of the category.”

Meanwhile, Yoplait, a division of Minneapolis-based General Mills, also is participating in the day parts thanks to its newest member of the yogurt family. For instance, Simply…Go-Gurt is made with simple ingredients and low-fat milk containing calcium and Vitamin D and comes in a package of eight tubes. They are available in Strawberry and Mixed Berry flavors.

Kid consumers also can choose from Yoplait Splitz, which deliver dessert flavors in a wholesome, nutritious format, according to the company’s website. These 90-calorie desserts offer a good source of calcium and Vitamin D and come in Rainbow Sherbet, Strawberry Banana Split and Strawberry Sundae.

Going greek, organic

Many of today’s processors also are going Greek by providing a multitude of better-for-you offerings mixed with a little bit of Greek substance.

For instance, General Mills’ Yoplait launched Yoplait Greek, which delivers double the protein than the leading yogurt, as well as Vitamins A and D, according to the company. This team of Greek yogurt includes Strawberry, Blueberry, Honey Vanilla and Plain.

Likewise, Sun Valley Dairy, the San Francisco-based makers of Voskos Greek Yogurt, introduced YoGreek, a dual-cup option of Greek yogurt and crunchy granola.

Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill., also is going Greek thanks to its new Athenos line of Greek yogurt, which encompasses fat-free Greek yogurt in tubs of plain and divided (a combination) and comes with single-serving containers of Strawberry, Peach, Blueberry or Honey flavors.

Even retailers are getting into the mix. Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla., for example, launched Organic Active Yogurt, a new private label line of USDA- and kosher-certified yogurt options. They come in 6-ounce containers of Strawberry, Blueberry, Peach, Vanilla and Raspberry flavors.

Packaging delight

When it comes to packaging, it’s all about first impressions. Should the package be crushed or indented, most likely the consumer will move on to the less-deformed option.

Such is the case for those packages designed to help save the earth. That’s why many of today’s yogurt processors have reformatted their packaging containers to not only “tell a tale” but also to do so in a way that doesn’t destroy the planet.

Stonyfield Farm, Londonderry, N.H., converted from petroleum-based plastics to a plant-based material to form its multipack yogurt cups. It had been using polystyrene PS #6 plastic, which is derived from petroleum. Stonyfield is using a plastic made of polylactic acid (PLA) extracted from corn. The bottom of each cup is stamped “This cup is made from plants.” 

“We are also working hard to continually reduce our impact on the environment by eliminating or reducing packaging materials, such as the cardboard overwrap of Activia 4-packs and switching to more form/fill/sealed cups reducing the amount of material needed to make a cup of yogurt and eliminate the transportation of empty packaging,”  Dannon’s Neuwirth says. “Throughout the company, we’ve made environmental issues top-of-mind for every Dannon employee by linking variable compensation bonuses to social goals, including environmental goals.”

Dannon also created more multipack and quart-size offerings to improve shopper convenience, he adds.

“The multipack in particular also provides an environmental benefit, as it uses less packaging on a per ounce basis than single-serve cups,” Neuwirth says.

Dannon also teamed up with the National Breast Cancer Foundation to increase awareness of early detection and treatment. As a result, it outfitted its Activia, Light and Fit, All-Natural and Fruit on the Bottom product lines to bear the pink breast cancer awareness ribbon.

For its part, the Tillamook County Creamery Association upgraded its packaging to cater to larger-family shoppers, says Jay Allison, vice president of sales and marketing for the Tillamook, Ore., organization.

“Our yogurt line is now all-natural with no artificial colors, artificial flavoring, artificial sweeteners or artificial growth hormones,” he adds. “This year we’re introducing a larger yogurt container for home cooking convenience, greater value and increased environmental responsibility by using less packaging.”

In addition to packaging enhancements, some companies are giving their facilities a facelift to help improve environmental changes.

For instance, due to concern over its carbon footprint, Green Valley Organics installed a new solar system to offset 100% of the energy needs of the creamery that produces its Redwood Hill Farm and Green Valley Organics brand products, Strunk says. “We are committed to providing a sustainable environment and implementing green practices for the benefit of our animals, the land and community – from recycling, composting and mulching waste for our vegetable gardens and orchards to never using sprays, pesticides or herbicides at our farm – and we are proud to support causes we care about, including the Climate Protection Campaign, Sonoma Land Trust and Sonoma Land Paths,” he adds.

A fusion of upgraded packaging changes, exotic flavor options and overall appeal has allowed the yogurt category to grow up and become a category all its own without the help of its dairy counterparts.  

Fast Facts

According to an executive summary produced by Chicago-based Mintel outlining the habits of consumers in relationship to yogurt, survey results show:

  • Growth is expected to rebound starting this year as the economy recovers and consumers re-embrace yogurt. Furthermore, continued growth in small premium brands and functional/probiotic products will drive sales.

  • An influx of premium, natural, organic and functional/probiotic offerings has generated interest in the category and helped drive up retail prices.

  • More than 1,200 new yogurt products have been introduced in the United States since 2005, with most of the activity occurring in the refrigerated yogurt segment.

  • The hottest trends in the yogurt market are organic/natural, functional yogurts made with probiotics, high protein and fiber, Greek-style, indulgent and dessert-style and kid-targeted products.

  • Interest in organic and natural yogurt is high with more than one-third (34%) of respondents seeking out all-natural yogurt products, while 15% look for organic claims.

  • However, interest in probiotic yogurts is still growing and remains relatively low (24%).

The Rise in Dips, Spreads

Consumers are making food choices that are part of a well-balanced diet while still offering great taste and variety, says Mary Beth Cowardin, senior marketing manager -produce dips for T. Marzetti Co.

“We are seeing this emerging trend drive sales for items that offer a new twist on traditional dips,” she adds. “From a health and wellness perspective, consumers are also eating small meals more frequently throughout the day and veggies with dip is a terrific option. As a result, people’s perceptions of dips are shifting from being used not only as a party platter option but also an everyday snack.”

That’s why the Columbus, Ohio-based company amped up its product line to include Otria Greek Yogurt Veggie Dips, which also capitalizes on the Greek yogurt trend. This dip combines Greek yogurt’s light and creamy texture with a bevy of herbs and spices. It contains 60 calories and comes in Garden Herb Ranch, Salsa Cilantro, Chipotle Cheese, Cucumber Dill Feta and Spinach Artichoke.

New product introductions aside, Circle Foods unveiled a new look to its La Terra Fina dips. Now offered in a broader, shallower container, the San Diego-based company says the new size and shape makes for easier stacking and the wider top opening allows consumers easier access to spoon out the dip.

Likewise, Prairie Farms Dairy, based in Carlinville, Ill., launched its “Farmer Owned” campaign with a makeover to its new 16-ounce sour cream dips, which are made with real sour cream, contain calcium and Vitamin A and come in Bacon Cheddar and Jalapeño Fiesta. The new logo maintains the company name in red with a gold “Farmer Owned” banner. Making this change helps consumers identify its team of products, including cottage cheese, dips, yogurt, sour cream and ice cream, as coming from local, farmer-owned dairy producers.

Philling Up on Cream Cheese

To meet the needs of today’s on-the-go consumers, in January 2011, Kraft Foods will introduce Philly Mini Tubs, which are individual snap-apart tubs. Containing 100 calories or less, these mini tubs are available in Plain, Reduced-fat Plain, Strawberry and Chive & Onion varieties.

“Consumers’ need for convenience is present as ever and they are increasingly seeking easy, practical ways of fulfilling their needs,” says Angela Wiggins, senior manager, corporate affairs for the Northfield, Ill.-based company. “They expect preparation ease, greater portability and ease in cleaning up.”