Cultural Center

Dairy cultures prove they are truly “good” bacteria with recent innovations and applications.
by Lynn Petrak
When it comes to the successful development of cultured dairy products, many processors and manufacturers are going with a gut feeling.
The human gut, in this case, happens to be a focal point of live bacterial cultures that have been shown to improve the human digestive system. Such microorganisms are common ingredients in many dairy products and are increasingly added to others as a way to boost nutritional profiles. Beyond enhancing the health benefits of a product, cultures have long been used for a variety of functional purposes in a wide range of finished foods and beverages.
Cultures, in fact, have been a part of dairy products for centuries, as an integral part of the fermentation of products like cheese, yogurt and certain milks. Interest in the health benefits of food-grade cultures dates back to the early 1900s, when a Nobel laureate researcher linked the intake of certain fermented dairy products with longevity and overall good health. In the ensuing years, more research was devoted to both the health benefits and performance of cultures, as strains were isolated and applied to various dairy goods, including yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, buttermilk, cheese and milk.
These days, there is a plethora of food-grade cultures on the market being formulated in new and innovative ways. Strains are available for a range of desired properties; for instance, there are designated classes of cultures for use in cheese starter cultures, yogurt, milk, buttermilk and sour cream.
Much of the development in recent years has been driven by technological advancements, as university researchers, ingredient suppliers and independent laboratories have identified and utilized emerging and increasingly sophisticated beneficial bacterial strains. Many such strains are being selected and adapted for specific products and purposes.
At the same time, the competitive climate of the food and beverage industry has led dairy processors to differentiate themselves with items that can be marketed as having a nutritious edge and that feature the flavors, texture and appearance that consumers demand.
Such converging trends have made it a comparatively busy time on the research and development front, both for dairy culture suppliers and for the processors they serve.
“It’s a wonderful time to be in dairy,” remarks Beth Jones, product manager of fresh dairy and probiotics for Danisco USA Inc., Madison, Wis., an ingredient company with an extensive line of cultures. “You are starting to see market shifts that allow the [dairy] companies to think about new products and niche markets, which allows the dairy ingredient suppliers to create more value for them — a win-win for everyone.”
Likewise, David Burrington, director of marketing of dairy ingredients for global ingredient supplier Chr. Hansen, Milwaukee, cites more activity in the dairy category, driven by new product introductions, changing consumer tastes and processing needs. “It seems like now there are always developments in cultures and cultures going into fermented and cheeses,” he says.
Working on Wellness
Over the past few years, much R&D work in suppliers’ laboratories and processors’ test kitchens and plants has centered on the nutritional advantages of various cultures. Such an emphasis is natural, given the longtime interest in so-called “good” bacteria.
Suppliers and marketers of cultured dairy products can likely rattle off any number of health benefits associated with the intake of cultured dairy foods. Cultures tested for their health effects have shown, among other results, to aid digestion of milk in lactose-intolerant individuals, guard against ulcers, help lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, possibly protect against certain type of cancers, enhance the body’s immune defense responses and maintain intestinal health. There have been several other promising studies indicating that consumption of certain cultured dairy products can ward off other chronic diseases and conditions as well.
In addition to enhancing or maintaining wellness, cultures can also play a role in food safety, according to some studies. Industrially produced dairy cultures, for instance, are found in pasteurized milk, which helps prevent the spreading of disease. Research has also shown that certain probiotic cultures can protect not only against gastrointestinal problems but can help inhibit infection by foodborne pathogens like listeria monocytogenes and salmonella.
Recently, there has been a great focus on probiotic cultures, naturally found in the digestive tract and shown to improve intestinal function. Probiotics, used in dairy products like yogurts and functional beverages, may well represent the next generation of cultures and span a variety of strains, including Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, and Lactobacillus reuteri, among others.
“A probiotic is a live microorganism that when administered in adequate amount confers a health benefit on a host,” explains Mary Ellen Sanders, an industry consultant on dairy and food culture technology. “Essentially, the definition is that they have to be alive and have to have a health benefit.”
According to Terri Rexroat, product and market manager for cultures and enzymes for Degussa Food Ingredients, Waukesha, Wis., these beneficial cultures are in a class of their own when it comes to enhancing wellness. “Each strain has its own specific benefits, but as a group, they all share the attribute that continued consumption improves intestinal balance by restoring these types of bacteria that humans are born with but which decrease dramatically after birth,” she says. “Just by being present, probiotic bacteria exert competitive antagonism to suppress growth of disease-producing bacteria.”
There are distinct differences between probiotics and other food-grade cultures that should be taken into account by manufacturers, however. “Not all beneficial bacteria are probiotics,” explains Kasi Reddy, vice president of research and development and quality assurance for Stonyfield Farm, Londonderry, N.H.  “Probiotics are qualified by the ones which survive in the human gastrointestinal tract — it’s how they survive the passage and colonization through the human gastrointestinal tract and also their survival in the finished products to provide the health benefits.”
In addition to traditional Lactobacillus bulgaricus and S. thermophilus, Stonyfield Farm now adds four probiotics to its yogurts, including Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacteria, Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus reuteri, a culture that is currently exclusive to Stonyfield Farm.
Related to probiotics, meanwhile, are prebiotics, ingredients like inulin or oligosaccharides that may beneficially affect the host by selective stimulating the growth and activity of bacteria in the colon. “Prebiotics can multiply beneficial bacteria up to tenfold,” explains Reddy, noting that prebiotics like inulin have been shown to boost calcium absorption as well as improve the existing benefits of probiotics.
Many culture suppliers report a growing interest among their dairy customers — and in turn driven by consumers — in the positive health effects of probiotics and, to some extent, prebiotics. “After several years of stagnant performance in the late 1990s, interest in probiotics and prebiotics in dairy products is once again growing rapidly. This is undoubtedly due to the emerging interest in functional foods — consumers are starting to realize that it is more healthful, less expensive, easier and tastier to get our nutrients from our diets rather than from supplements,” says Rexroat. “As long as the research to prove the clinical benefits of various specific probiotics and prebiotics continues, this area will continue to grow because dairy is a very natural and relatively inexpensive fit for these ingredients.”
Burrington agrees. “We have seen more activity in the probiotic area. Our main emphasis has been looking at probiotics and either adding them to current cultures or coming out with additional documented strains,” he says, adding that there are several factors at play. “People have talked about these things for a number of years, but it seems like there is more interest in health positioning from different consumers. Also, in my opinion, the U.S. medical community has become more favorable to holistic approaches.”
Jones also believes health professionals are helping spread the positive messages about probiotics found in foods and beverages. “I do think we are on the cusp of this starting to move forward. We are seeing more interest from the medical community and as that develops, it gives comfort and assurance to the general population. Also, you are now seeing it in popular press magazines,” she says, adding that yogurt companies are starting to focus on developing and labeling yogurts formulated with probiotics.
As interest in probiotics gradually grows, suppliers are expanding their offerings of such cultures. Chr. Hansen, as Burrington notes, has been working on research and logging the characteristics of new and existing strains of probiotics. “We have a range of strains, but feel that the documentation of health benefits is important for a company that wants to position their products,” he says.
Meanwhile, in the current marketplace, probiotics are most commonly found in yogurt products, including both spoonable and drinkable formats. Stonyfield Farm began adding probiotics as far back as 1991 and has retooled and improved the formulations ever since.
According to Reddy, the decision to incorporate more probiotics into the company’s various yogurts was based on demand from its core consumers for products that enhance well-being and nutrition. “We want to add as many health components as possible to yogurt because it is best carrier of probiotics and prebiotics,” he says, adding that demand has risen every year. “Our growth along basically gives you an indication that demand is there.”
In addition to Stonyfield Farm’s product line made with six live and active cultures, Tarrytown, N.Y.-based Dannon Co. has rolled out a new probiotic product, DanActive®. With a bold label touting its immunity-boosting benefits, each bottle of flavored DanActive contains ten times more cultures than traditional yogurt, including the probiotic Lactobacillus casei.
Regional dairies have also thrown their hat into the probiotic ring, such as Des Moines, Iowa-based Anderson Erickson Dairy (AE), which now offers a line of Healthy All Over products. The series includes fat-free sour cream, fat-free cottage cheese and fat-free milk made with extra acidiophilus and bifdum.
It may be a smaller slice of the dairy market for now, but the future for probiotics holds a lot of potential, suppliers are quick to note, especially as other countries that were early proponents of the cultures extend their use. “I think if you do a quick search on products around the world that are being introduced, you’ll see probiotics added to cheese, fluid milk, fermented milk and cottage cheese. I even saw something on a probiotic being added to a potato chip in Asia,” Burrington says, adding that besides yogurt, cheese is a promising format for dairy. “Probiotics and cheese are relatively uncommon but you are starting to see them show up. With new trends like natural and organic cheeses, it seems like it would be a natural fit.”
Likewise, Jones believes the future for probiotic applications will grow more sophisticated, especially as they relate to health benefits. “Targeting specific health maladies with defined probiotic blends is just developing. It will be interesting if these targeted culture blends move into the food arena,” she says.
Foods and beverages don’t have to contain probiotics to be considered functional, however. There has been a parallel slow but continued growth of dairy-based functional foods and beverages and meal replacements, many of which are made with traditional culture strains. “One interesting area has been what we consider to be the health and wellness type of products. We are starting to feel that our customers really want new products that they can offer their customers,” says Jones. “They want ingredients that create a novel selling point for them and benefit for their final customers."
Indeed, there are several receptive audiences for dairy products with added health benefits. “Generally speaking, these products target what would be active Americans, and it seems they are positioned for active, on-the-go people with a focus on portability and convenience,” says Burrington, citing other demographic niches. “Providing healthy products to kids is a driver and, on the other hand, there is a move to attract aging baby boomers with additional ingredients.”
That said, there are some challenges in developing functional foods and beverages that contain cultures. “When you add cultures, your shelf life will be reduced. Sixty days is on the far end now of what typically can be done,” says Burrington, adding that some non-cultured functional beverages have a shelf life of up to a year.
Beyond technical issues, there are other hurdles when it comes to educating consumers about the role cultures can play in the diet. According to Rexroat, average Americans sometimes have difficulty sorting food facts from fiction. “It is not safe to assume that consumers know that yogurt is made with cultures that have healthy benefits because many just do not know this. It is imperative that the dairy industry work overtime to correct this message and take ownership of our claims,” she says.
The consuming public may need to brush up on the scientific basics of nutrition, but when it comes to weight-loss plans, they are all ears. With so many Americans watching their waistlines today, there has been an immense interest in products that fit into healthful eating plans.
The low-carbohydrate craze, which has been a major focus of R&D work for many food and beverage companies over the last few years, has affected cultured dairy products. “You can get dramatically different formulations than what we’ve been used to, and you have to consider the impact on the culture,” Burrington says of the ingredient interactions in low-carb products, adding that suppliers and manufacturers have to work together on such cultured formulations because of their higher protein and fat contents. “How a typical flavor that a culture will produce may change as the base changes. We are looking at ways to make them more compatible.”
Jones also underscores the differences in such newly-developed low-carb products. “With low-carb formulations and whey protein concentrates entering dairy formulations, they may or may not impact the performance of the dairy culture.,” she says. “Also, certain characteristics of stabilizers affect the culture. You have to balance all of it to get consistent high quality product.”
Other R&D Drivers
Health, nutrition and weight loss may represent significant areas of new product development, but there are other factors in the application of cultures. Basic product attributes — taste, mouthfeel, appearance — have affected the demand for certain types of cultured products as well.
The yogurt category, for one, has been influenced by evolving consumer preferences. “In general, people want milder yogurts — milder in terms of what we call a traditional product, which is very low pH with a strong culture flavor,” says Jones.
To accommodate the shift toward different flavors and textures, suppliers have had to work with cultures to ensure the proper balance of ingredients. “We’ve been moving away from traditional yogurt with an acid bite to sweeter, almost pudding-like products. The main thing is making sure that your cultures do not post-acidify and to look for body builders,” says Burrington.
Cultures for other dairy products like cheese, sour cream, buttermilk and cottage cheese are also carefully selected to provide the preferred attributes for acid, texture and flavor. Streptococcus thermophilus, for example, has been shown to work well with basic Italian cheese, while Lactococcus latis is effective in specialty cheeses like brick, limburger and muenster.
For its part, Danisco offers a range of Choozit™ cheese cultures, chosen for their various impacts in flavor and appearance of cheeses: some cultures help control browning of pizza cheese while others allow for specialized soft cheeses with longer a shelf life.
The consumer palate may be top of mind in product development, but dairy manufacturers’ own demands also play a role in how cultures are developed and marketed. “They (dairies) are looking for something to improve their process, for faster speed and more consistency. It’s about throughput in the plant,” says Jones, adding that the fermentation time of cultures has been reduced by up to 20 percent over the past decade.
Degussa has fielded similar requests, according to Rexroat. “We are also a leader in cost-effective accelerated ripening systems for cheese, a rapidly growing market,” she says.
Another area linked to in-plant performance is protection against spoilage. In recent times, researchers and suppliers have focused on ways to prevent phage viruses from attacking starter bacteria during the early stages of processing. “We specialize in optimizing performance of our ingredients to help customers maximize consistency and yield and to minimize bacteriophage problems,” says Rexroat.
Similarly, Danisco has worked with its customers to ensure proper rotation during processing to guard against phages. That issue, according to Jones, has grown along with dairies’ expanding capabilities: “As plants have more products, you have increased likelihood you’ll have phage issues,” she says.
Food safety is tied into both consumer and processor interests. Danisco is one company that is experimenting with safety properties of cultures. “A new exciting area for cultures is providing a food safety and preservation measure to dairy products. Danisco Holdbac™ cultures are showing good results in this area for dairy producers,” says Jones.
Meanwhile, as they help provide solutions to consumers and processors alike, suppliers are spending more time in the lab on their own R&D work. “What we typically do is to look at how our cultures perform in a benchmark type of formula to see if it will cause any problems,” says Burrington, adding that Chr. Hansen operates three research facilities in which such work is done.
Danisco also has worked extensively on providing solutions to certain formulation challenges, according to Jones. “One thing that is unique about Danisco cultures for fresh dairy is that we have a freeze-dry range that we can do custom blending with. We do this for customer problem areas and unique products. We find it very successful,” says Jones, adding that it can be a complex process. “First, you have to know the characteristics of your strains and how they perform in different situations. Then we have to see how they work in synergy with other strains. It really becomes an art — you have to understand first the matrix that the culture grows in and then the subtlety of the combination.”
In addition to the other ingredients, the operating environment can make a difference. “Another factor that affects formulating a culture is the processing conditions of a plant,” Jones says. “As we know, milks are different and no two plants are the same.”  df
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.
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