Promoting Probiotics
by Lori Dahm
A wave of dairy products is hitting shelves with these live, active cultures.
For years, experts within the dairy industry have been waiting for the potential of probiotics to break wide open.
Several market factors indicated that probiotic popularity was imminent, including the growing embrace of yogurt as inherently healthy, the widespread acceptance of probiotics in Europe and Asia, and the initial introduction of Dannon’s Actimel in 1999. In addition, numerous research studies have demonstrated the significant health benefits that probiotic cultures and prebiotic ingredients deliver.
But the probiotic possibilities have languished. Consumers have not shown an interest in learning about ingesting good bacteria or about the issues of gut health.
That is, until now, when a number of dairy products with probiotic cultures are being introduced almost simultaneously. At the same time, there has been increased publicity about the importance of gastrointestinal health and more consumers are seeking health solutions through food.
These signs point to probiotics finally coming into their own, although a realistic forecast predicts several more years for consumer awareness to build to a level where probiotics are thoroughly understood and sought for their significant health benefits.
Gut Health
Probiotics are live microorganisms that are often isolated from dairy products or the human or animal intestinal tracts, and when consumed in adequate amounts result in health benefits.
Ingesting adequate amounts of probiotics can help foster the proper bacteria balance in the human system and improve gut health, and therapeutic doses of probiotics can also deliver health benefits such as immune system enhancement.
“Although most consumers are not familiar with the term ‘probiotics,’ the ingestion of live cultures is not new. Yogurt is traditionally a source of live-active cultures — most products contain probiotic cultures such as Lactobacillus acidophilus,” says Dr. Beth Jones product manager for fresh dairy and probiotic cultures at Danisco, Madison, Wis. “Yogurt manufacturers may not label these products as containing probiotics. Yet consumers are already ingesting live, active cultures in yogurt products and have had an introduction to the concept. This is an excellent foundation to build consumer awareness regarding probiotics.”
Often hand in hand with probiotics, prebiotic ingredients are indigestible fibers that pass through the stomach to help stimulate the activity of bacteria in the colon. These ingredients also help boost calcium absorption, and are a natural combination with probiotics.
In the past six months, several new products have debuted in the market with specific probiotic label claims. The most notable is Dannon’s DanActive, which was initially introduced five years ago as Dannon Actimel.
Actimel existed in Europe for almost a decade, and was introduced to the United States as a supplement in a drinkable yogurt format. However, American consumers were not prepared to embrace the Actimel concept readily, so Dannon went back to the drawing board, re-named their product and adjusted the formulation slightly for the American palate. The new DanActive product boasts 10 billion live and active cultures.
Yoplait’s Nouriche product is another drinkable yogurt with the label claiming live and active cultures. Lifeway Foods, the leading producer of kefir in the United States, has introduced cultured milk smoothies with “probiotic” front and center on the label. And an interesting development is White Wave’s soy smoothie Silk Live!, labeled “A live-cultured smoothie” that contains probiotics with the claim “six live and active cultures.” The time is at hand for products with probiotic ingredients to become a force in the market.
“If you stop and think about what you have seen in the media, in television commercials and such in the last year, there are more ‘gut issues’ being given publicity,” says Jones. “This is helping people become more comfortable with the topic of their gut. Now people are understanding that gut health is important and claiming ownership of it rather than avoiding it.”
Health Claims
When manufacturers first consider including probiotics in their products, there are challenges in determining how to position these products in the marketplace.
“It is necessary to develop the right lexicon to talk to consumers about these organisms in terms they can understand, in ways that are anecdotal rather than overly scientific,” says Bill Haines, vice president of innovation at Dairy Management Inc., Rosemont, Ill. “It is difficult to talk to consumers about live active bacteria because a lot of the general public thinks bacteria are harmful rather than helpful.”  
Our society has become so focused upon eliminating bacteria that educating consumers that probiotics are “good bacteria” is a difficult proposition.
“Consumers would benefit from knowing that one hypothesis for why we have so much allergy and inflammatory disease is due to inadequate exposure to bacteria,” says Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders, consultant with Dairy and Food Culture Technologies, Centennial, Colo. “Not that you want to expose your children to pathogens, but we have evolved in close concert with bacteria for hundreds of thousands of years. Exposure to the right types of bacteria is a good thing, and imparting an understanding of bacteria and probiotics would allow consumers to make more educated choices for themselves.”
Although it may not be necessary for consumers to gain a technical understanding of probiotic bacteria, some education is clearly needed.
What might help in this realm is the completion of human clinical studies with probiotic ingredients. Although many studies have documented the health benefits of probiotics in reputable medical journals, human clinical trials are still needed.
“The science is mounting steadily to prove the numerous health benefits that probiotics can deliver, and we are seeing research results that indicate that probiotic bacteria interact with immune cells through the gut and deliver benefits in areas of immune function,” says Sanders. “For example, several studies have shown the ability of certain strains of probiotics to enhance overall immune response to fight viruses and pathogens. An area of very promising research is showing that probiotics can help offset gut inflammation or irritable bowel syndrome.”
Other studies have indicated that probiotics may help prevent colon cancer. And a recent study showed a 50 percent decrease in incidence of atopic eczema in children at risk for the allergy who were administered high doses of one probiotic at birth.
Studies of prebiotic ingredients demonstrate these fibers have health benefits such as promoting gastrointestinal function, reducing digestive illness and helping absorption of certain nutrients like calcium and magnesium.
“Orafti conducted a study recently that showed our inulin products not only protect the probiotic cultures through the manufacturing process, but can also protect the probiotic through digestion until the probiotic reaches the intestine,” says John Martin, project leader at Orafti, Malvern, Pa. “Our findings were that inulin could help promote the availability of probiotic bacteria in the gut.”
Human clinical studies are continuing to be conducted to demonstrate the health benefits of probiotics.
“Some of the breaking studies demonstrate that children eating milk with probiotics have a lower incidence of dental carries, or that probiotics inhibit the Helicobacter pylori bacteria in the stomach. This bacterium is associated with the development of ulcers and stomach cancer,” says Sanders. “The vast health benefits can be understood by realizing the potential for probiotic bacteria to impact human health is tied into all the body areas that are colonized by microflora, and all the various strains of probiotic organisms that exist — the potential is huge.”
Tech Talk
The technical issues in including probiotic organisms in dairy products center upon maintaining live active culture through the product’s shelf life.
“In my opinion, there is a need for labeling the probiotic with the types of bacteria and the final count that a product delivers,” says Sanders. “This provides the consumer information to judge the product’s value and also assurance that the manufacturer is committed to deliver the efficacious levels of probiotic. This is important for consumers to recognize the legitimacy of probiotic products and embrace their health benefits.”
While fluid or fermented milk products provide a friendly environment for bacteria to flourish, the high-acid environment inherent in yogurt products can cause a reduction in the count of surviving cultures. Manufacturers must determine the initial level of the probiotic organism that should be added to achieve the count desired at the end of the product’s shelf life.
“Dairy products are friendly to probiotic cultures, however, we are starting to understand how formulations and processing conditions impact the viability of these organisms through shelf life,” says Jones. “These cultures are live biological systems, and when you change the environment they have different reactions, so you have to figure out how to keep that organism viable.”
The addition of a probiotic ingredient may cause the characteristics of the product to change, so monitoring sensory differences is necessary for success.
“A manufacturer may select probiotic strains to include in their product depending upon the target population for the dairy product and whether they want a single strain or a blend,” says Jones. “In addition, certain probiotic strains will do better in certain environments. Dairy products with a pH of 4 or below do best with a L. paracasei strain.”
The technical issues with prebiotic fibers center upon using the short-chain fibers versus the long-chain fibers for different functional characteristics.
“High-acid systems like a soft drink will cause a slight hydrolysis in inulin, but in yogurt and cultured dairy products this is not a problem. However, it is important to keep in mind that short-chain inulin acts more like a sugar versus long-chain inulin which behaves more like a fat,” says Martin. “So a formulation might use both fibers together if replacing the sugar with oligofructose while trying to achieve the creamy mouthfeel that can be imparted with inulin.”
It seems natural that probiotic cultures would be included in dairy products because live cultures are inherent to starter-fermented dairy products, and because refrigeration helps probiotics survive.
How fermented dairy products may promote the survival of the bacteria strains once ingested is the subject of current research. One of the DMI-sponsored research projects being conducted at North Carolina State University is investigating whether milk or milk components affect the expression of key bacteria genes associated with probiotic activity. The purpose is to determine which of the health benefits associated with probiotics are likely maximized when cultures are consumed with a dairy product.
While some of the more innovative dairy products that include probiotics are cheese and dairy spreads like sour cream or cream cheese, the inclusion of probiotics outside of dairy products is starting to develop as well.
“The biggest area of concern when probiotics are incorporated in non-dairy food applications is keeping the bacteria alive in a food matrix that doesn’t have the benefit of refrigeration like dairy products or an arid state like dry powders,” says Jones. “To keep probiotics viable they must be kept in a semi-dormant state, so moisture without refrigeration is problematic. Technology is currently being evaluated in an attempt to create a system that maintains probiotic survival in moist applications like nutrition bars, cookies, candy bars and other products. The future will undoubtedly see this area develop.”
With over 15 different commercial strains, research also will continue to document the targeted health benefits that each strain delivers.
“Probiotics have experienced growth and interest for the last four or five years, and I expect this will continue with the incorporation of probiotics into new dairy foods and in other food matrixes outside of dairy,” says Jones. “New probiotic products will also be targeting populations for specific health solutions. It is exciting to be in this infancy stage where the marketplace is dynamic and growing.”