Tipping Point
by Julie Cook Ramirez
As consumers learn more about food’s impact, yogurt makers are taking the opportunity to boost the healthfulness of their offerings.
As a society, Americans generally want to lose weight and add years to their lives.
Bombarded by news reports about the long-term effects of what they put into their bodies, consumers have become much more conscious of the foods they eat and the beverages they drink.
The growing awareness of the value of a healthy diet bodes well for yogurt, a food dubbed “the best of what dairy has to offer” by Jed Davis, director of marketing, Cabot Creamery Cooperative, Cabot, Vt. Long known as inherently healthy, yogurt took a while to catch on in the United States when it first became widely available in the 1970s and has come to enjoy widespread acceptance in recent years, thanks in large part to extensive R&D efforts by major players like Yoplait, Dannon and Stonyfield Farm. Their collective efforts have resulted in yogurts designed for every segment of society and every possible dining occasion.
Consequently, yogurt consumption has grown by leaps and bounds. According to New York-based NPD Group, 20.5 percent of consumers ate yogurt at least once every two weeks in 2005, compared to just 9.6 percent of consumers in 1985. NPD’s resident food guru Harry Balzer admits being awed by yogurt’s growing popularity. “In the 20 years we’ve done research,” he says, “only pizza has such broad appeal.”
Balzer’s comments are backed up further by data from Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI), which has been tracking steadily increasing yogurt sales. During the 52-week period ending April 16, 2006, sales of refrigerated yogurt rose 5.2 percent in dollars and 5.5 percent in units
According to Troy Davis, marketing manager for retail dairy, Wells’ Dairy Inc., Le Mars, Iowa, the health proposition ranks high among the primary reasons for the category’s continued growth. “Consumers are recognizing they have to take actions to improve their diet,” he says. “As more people are coming to recognize the health benefits that yogurt provides — the live and active cultures, the high calcium content — they are recognizing the importance of having a product like that in their diet on a daily basis.”
Edible Medicine
Yogurt makers want to ensure that consumers have plenty of options to choose from when it comes to getting their daily RDA of the creamy stuff. The bulk of their R&D efforts of late have centered on so-called functional yogurts, those which offer added benefits beyond the standard calcium, protein and live, active cultures.
While he argues that “all yogurt could be described as functional,” Kyle Duea, marketing manager for Yoplait USA Inc., the Minneapolis-based subsidiary of General Mills Inc., agrees that added health benefits are currently one of the major focuses of the category. In France, Yoplait recently rolled out Bioplait yogurt with soy proteins. But Duea declines to comment on whether Yoplait planning to bring the product to the United States anytime soon, saying only, “We are always looking to introduce new innovative products which meet our consumers’ expectations for taste, convenience and health.”
TOP 10 YOGURT
VENDORS†*
$ Sales (In Millions) % Change vs. Year Ago Unit Sales (In Millions) % Change vs. Year Ago
Total Category$3,024.05.2%3,457.65.5%
Yogurt2,596.44.93,236.55.3
Yogurt Drinks427.66.8221.09.5
Yoplait USA Inc.1,067.88.51,335.012.0
Dannon Co.895.31.3701.4-1.2
Private Label372.08.5652.77.6
Stonyfield Farm Inc.201.022.6128.822.5
Kraft Foods Inc.92.5-14.0144.9-8.0
YoFarm Corp.49.8-0.167.2-1.3
Wells’ Dairy44.824.070.715.9
Colombo Inc.44.2-7.454.8-9.8
Johanna Foods Inc.38.43.175.02.8
Meadow Gold Dairy Inc.34.88.514.14.0
† refrigerated yogurt and yogurt drinks combined, when available
* Total sales in supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchandise outlets, excluding Wal-Mart, for the 52-week period ending April 16, 2006.
SOURCE: Information Resources Inc.
Should Yoplait decide not to bring Bioplait to American shores, it wouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, considering how few functional yogurts are available here, compared to the rest of the world. Take Dannon’s Activia, for example. Introduced initially in France in 1987, Activia finally arrived here nearly 20 years later when Group Danone was convinced American consumers were ready for such a product.
Each 4-ounce serving of Activia contains billions of beneficial cultures, including Dannon’s proprietary Bifidus regularis. According to The Dannon Co., White Plains, N.Y., Activia is clinically proven to help regulate the digestive system in just two weeks, when eaten daily.
Although he admits the U.S. market is “still underdeveloped,” Andreas Ostermayr, Dannon’s vice president of marketing, is confident the American yogurt industry stands at the cusp of something big.
“As Americans, we are finally discovering the benefits of the yogurt category,” Ostermayr says. “There’s no doubt that the category still has substantial room to grow, both in consumption per capita and household penetration. We are just at the tipping point for the yogurt category to explode further.”
Dannon tested the waters last year with the introduction of Light ’n Fit with Fiber, which Ostermayr describes as “a learning field, a minor line extension to see how consumers would react to a more high health proposition on yogurt.” This reduced-calorie, nonfat yogurt is available in strawberry, peach, and apple varieties.
In Canada, Dannon unveiled Cardivia fat-free yogurt with omega-3 fatty acids, a nutritional booster that was the subject of much discussion at the International Dairy Foods Association’s recent Cultured Dairy Products Conference. Ostermayr declines to speculate when Cardivia might be sold in the United States.
Last fall, Swiss Valley Farms rolled out new and improved versions of its lowfat and fat-free yogurts, both containing inulin, an emerging source of fiber derived from the chicory root. The Davenport, Iowa-based company also boosted the fruit content of the products, added some new flavors — including vanilla, orange cream and lemon pie — and unveiled a new color-coded packaging design.
“Consumers are looking for ways to address health issues for themselves and their family,” says Ron Schroder, director of marketing. “They’ve become more receptive to the idea that foods can deliver functional benefits.”
The benefit of satiety lies at the heart of R&D efforts at LightFull Foods Inc., Mill Valley, Calif. At the beginning of 2006, the company unveiled its flagship product, LightFull Satiety Smoothie, a yogurt-based drink designed to give consumers the sensation of fullness and satisfaction. The product was developed based on “the science of satiety,” which says foods high in fiber and protein keep a person feeling full.
“There’s that science aspect, but there’s also an emotional and psychological aspect,” says Lynn Graham, co-founder and vice president of marketing. “If it doesn’t taste great, you are not going to be satisfied.”
The 11-ounce shelf-stable Satiety Smoothies are produced in four flavors — Strawberries & Cream, Peaches & Cream, Chocolate Fudge and Café Latte. Currently, they are available at Wegmans supermarkets in the eastern United States and Whole Foods stores in the San Francisco Bay area, along with select health and fitness clubs. Demand for the product has been so strong, however, that LightFull is about to begin selling Satiety Smoothies by the case through www.Amazon.com.
Not all yogurts with added health benefits have proven so successful. Introduced in the first quarter of 2005, Yoplait Healthy Heart, the first yogurt containing cholesterol-lowering plant sterols to be sold in the United States, has already been discontinued. According to Duea, it proved to be “too niche of a product at this time for the U.S. market.” Still, yogurt makers are convinced that functional products remain the most promising future direction for the category in the near-term.
Julie Cook Ramirez is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.