by Julie Cook Ramirez
Seeking a cure for what could someday ail them, consumers embrace this inherently healthy category.
Healthy choices. Increasingly, that seems to be the mantra among American consumers. With news about the growing instances of obesity, diabetes and other health concerns dominating the media, consumers have become more aware of the products they put into their bodies.
But many consumers are not willing to abandon their bad habits altogether. Thus, they have embarked on a search for the fast track to good health.
“Consumers want the equivalent of extended shelf-life, to stay better longer,” says Gail Barnes, vice president, fluid innovation, Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), Rosemont, Ill. “They are choosing beverages and foods oriented toward preventing illness, rather than curing it.”
In their quest, they have flocked to any food, beverage or supplement with even a hint of a healthy halo. Red wine, green tea, blueberries, garlic, chocolate, acai, pomegranate — even spinach was reaping the benefits of the health trend until last fall’s e-coli outbreak put the brakes on its revival. Increasingly, smoothies and smoothie-type beverages are emerging as their elixir of choice.
“Consumers are keenly interested in those products not only because of the convenience and the taste and the nutritional benefits, but also because of the added benefits of live and active cultures,” says Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations, The Dannon Co., White Plains, N.Y. “The era of foods with functional benefits — those benefits beyond basic nutrition — has absolutely come.”
That trend is reflected in the latest data from Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI), which demonstrates strong growth in nearly all smoothie and smoothie-type products. During the 52-week ending December 31, 2006, sales of refrigerated juice and drink smoothies rose 54.2 percent in dollars and 43.2 percent in units, across supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart. Meanwhile, refrigerated yogurt drink sales rose 2.5 and 7.7 percent, respectively.
Perhaps the most dramatic growth comes from the emerging kefir category. Morton Grove, Ill.-based Lifeway Foods Inc., by far the category leader, experienced sales increases of 55.8 and 47.9 percent for its flagship brand, while sales of Helios brand organic kefir rose 41.0 and 33.5 percent. Lifeway acquired Helios Nutrition Ltd. this past fall.
“People are looking for the next thing, and I think kefir is that next thing,” says Julie Smolyansky, Lifeway president and chief executive officer. “It provides the added benefits of probiotics, it’s got calcium and protein, it tastes great and it’s easy to consume. It’s the perfect storm.”
Kefir contains 10 live and active probiotic bacteria, including Saccharomyces kefir and Torula kefir bacteria. According to Lifeway, kefir helps “keep digestive and immune systems intact, helps prevent common side effects from taking antibiotics, helps with lactose intolerance and weight loss,” while providing an excellent source of calcium, protein and fiber.
Originating in Ukraine, kefir has long been a staple of Eastern European diets. According to Smolyansky, the milk-based beverage was used as a preventative in its native land, back in the days where health care was hard to come by.
“When they didn’t have access to medicine and health care, they used kefir and had very good health, which they attributed to consuming kefir,” she explains. “Here in the States, we might be slow [to recognize such benefits], but a product that is so rich in folklore and tradition and history carries with it a lot of validity, which definitely gives it the chance to make it to the next level.”
Building the Base
As Americans warm up to the concept of probiotics, Lifeway is making sure they have no shortage of forms of kefir to incorporate into their daily diet. The company recently introduced an Organic Whole Milk Kefir, which is made with full-fat milk for a creamier, more indulgent taste. The product is available in three varieties: Plain, Strawberries n’ Crème and Wildberries.
Recognizing the popularity of Greek-style products, Lifeway rolled out Greek Style Kefir, which Smolyansky says mimics old-world Mediterranean kefir through the addition of cream and adding sour cultures to Lifeway’s existing whole milk product. Smolyansky describes it as “a really authentic, indulgent, delicious, decadent product.”
For those consumers watching their waistlines, Lifeway sells a lowfat kefir line, which is sweetened with organic cane juice rather than high-fructose corn syrup. The company had always used organic cane juice as the sweetener of choice for its organic kefir line. Last year, Lifeway jumped on the pomegranate bandwagon by adding Pomegranate Kefir to its lowfat line. Smolyansky says a number of innovative new flavors will be hitting stores soon, including Asai Pomegranate and Gogi Berry.
“We take the cooler trendsand incorporate them into our product line-up,” Smolyansky says. “People want the next thing. After all, how much strawberry yogurt can you eat?”
Just as yogurt makers have set their sights on capturing kids’ share of stomach, so, too, has Lifeway. In June 2006, the company unveiled ProBugs, an organic kefir product two years in the making. Geared toward kids age 2 to 9, ProBugs is packaged in a patented no-spill 5-ounce pouch in two kid-oriented flavors, Sublime Slime Lime and Orange Creamy Crawler. Smolyansky says ProBugs have been so well received by kids and parents that a new flavor, GooBerry Pie, is already about to launch.
“Kids are addicted to it, and parents feel great about giving it to them because it’s got high calcium and low sugar,” she says. “I’ve had calls from parents who say their kid only has five foods they will eat, and ProBugs is now one of them. They love it.”
Not about to forget the burgeoning Hispanic-American population, Lifeway also sells La Fruta, a line of drinkable yogurts. Described as a “cool, refreshing blend of creamy milk and sweet juices,” La Fruta is available in several tropical flavors, including Pina Colada, Mango, Horchata, Tres Leche and Strawberry-Banana. When asked why the company hadn’t developed a Hispanic-oriented kefir, Smolyansky explains that the Hispanic population was known to be heavy consumers of drinkable yogurt, so it just made sense to produce a product consumers already knew and loved.
Boosting the Benefits
Providing additional health benefits is also top of mind for Dannon, which recently unveiled DanActive, a probiotic drink containing a proprietary strain of bacteria called L. casei Immunitas, which was specifically developed to help boost the immune system.
“We strongly believe we have something which completely separates us from the rest of the arena. Not only does it have no side effects, but it’s something you can easily make part of your daily diet,” says Andreas Ostermayr, senior vice president of marketing. “Just one bottle a day and you enhance your immune system and give yourself a much better resistance to the hectic stressful lifestyle we have these days.”
Dannon also recently boosted the healthfulness of its enormously successful Danimals line of drinkable yogurt, adding the probiotic culture Lactobacillus GG (LGG), which has been scientifically proven to aid in gastrointestinal function, immune function and maintenance of oral health in children.
In Londonderry, N.H., Stonyfield Farm also is targeting active youngsters with the introduction of Shift, an organic cultured dairy-based energy drink. Rich in calcium and vitamin D, Shift also serves as an excellent source of vitamins B3 and B6, which support mental and physical performance; vitamin C, an immunity-boosting antioxidant; ginseng, which helps combat fatigue; and acai, the Brazilian “super-fruit” known for its energizing health properties.
Available in Berry Boost, Power Punch and Strawberry Banana, Shift has one-third less sugar than regular smoothies and none of the negative side effects — rapid heart rate, anxiety and gastrointestinal problems — associated with some energy drinks on the market today.
Julie Cook Ramirez is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.$OMN_arttitle="Smoothie Nation";?> $OMN_artauthor="Julie Cook Ramirez";?>