A New Force
by Cathy Sivak
Product launches, positioning and educational efforts rev up probiotic dairy case opportunities.
A probiotics launch and consumer education campaign from No. 2 U.S. yogurt brand Dannon has served to propel a veritable race to market.
In Europe and Asia, consumers are long familiar with the health benefits conferred by live and active probiotic cultures, including gut health, immune system health and other attributes. The total international probiotic market in yogurts, kefirs and fermented dairy beverages translates to $10 billion and growing annual sales.
A decade-long attempt to educate American consumers about the benefits of probiotics broke loose in 2006 with the introduction of Dannon Activia® and other probiotic spoonable and drinkable yogurt products. “Probiotics are a hot topic in the health and wellness segment of the food industry,” says Guy Bouthillier, director of business development at Main Street Ingredients, La Crosse, Wis.
Cultures in yogurt and fermented milks are particularly suitable as live and active probiotic carriers, as they work together to keep a high count of probiotics viable for the product’s shelf life. Moving forward, U.S. processors are not only bolstering probiotic presence in the yogurt and drinks case, but also are considering probiotics applications in cheeses, frozen desserts and fruit juices.
“Consumers are very interested in the health benefits that probiotics can provide (i.e. increasing natural defenses, healthy digestion). The problem for U.S. consumers has always been the idea of eating bacteria,” says Ralph Koekkoek, product manager of probiotics at Parsippany, N.J.-based DSM Food Specialties. “Now that [Dannon parent Groupe] Danone has been able to open up the market for probiotics and is bringing the message to the U.S. consumers, we see that other companies are ready to follow.”
In the vernacular, probiotics are friendly bacteria that help digestive health. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which confer a health benefit on the host when administered in adequate amounts.” The dairy industry is serving up the shortest definition of all: full-fledged opportunity.
White Plains, N.Y.-based Dannon Co.’s first probiotic yogurt, Activia, is promoted as a product that aids regularity and digestive tract health. Sales wildly exceeded expectations, topping $100 million in 2006. Activia Light, a lower-calorie line extension, is expected to roll out this year. Dannon has announced it plans to double its production over the next three years, a move fueled by Activia’s success.
Activia and other probiotic products tout health benefits and broach a subject typically discussed behind closed doors or snickered at by small boys — digestive tract function. Activia marketing support has landed GI function in the virtual water cooler of the blogosphere as well as dairy R&D labs nationwide.
The regulatory factor is certainly in play for Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods’ latest health and wellness rollout. LiveActive Cottage Cheese under the Breakstone’s and Knudsen brands supports the digestive system from a different angle: prebiotic fiber. The non-active, natural fiber aids digestive health and can relieve bloating, gas and irritability; at the same time, prebiotics act as a food source for probiotics.
The benefits of the prebiotic fiber inulin contained in LiveActive are promoted with an on-package tag with the claim, “Helps naturally regulate the digestive system with prebiotic fiber,” reports Jason Hecker, Kraft’s brand manager for cottage cheese. In addition to prebiotic fiber, the 2% LiveActive cottage cheese product delivers between 11 and 12 grams of protein per 4-ounce serving.
Often classified as dietary fiber, prebiotics including inulin are utilized in U.S. dairy applications, including some Stonyfield Farm yogurt products. More than three-quarters of Americans find it challenging to incorporate more fiber into their diets, according to Kraft’s consumer research. Since the average American’s fiber consumption is far short of the recommended 20 to 35 grams of fiber per day, according to Journal of the American Dietetic Association research, prebiotics offer new health and wellness opportunities for dairy processors.
Probiotic Product Action
Possibilities for probiotics carry appeal for brand and the bottom line managers as well as consumers. “Health benefits of probiotics fit perfectly into what consumers expect from functional foods,” says Mirjana Curic-Bawden, senior scientist at Chr. Hansen, Milwaukee. “Increased R&D activity in the U.S. dairy industry in recent months will likely result in a range of new product introductions in 2007.”
As part of its “high health” global product strategy, in 2007 Dannon will introduce DanActive, a probiotic drink with proprietary L. casei Immunitas, is designed to strengthen the body’s defenses by enhancing the digestive tract, where 70 percent of the immune system is located.
Further anticipated offerings are likely to tap into firmly established global functional food trends and products.
Children are avid yogurt consumers, and processors are recognizing potential for probiotics. In 2006, Morton Grove, Ill.-based Lifeway Foods Inc. launched its ProBugs line of drinkable yogurts for kids ages 2 to 9. Look for Dannon to add to the segment with a reformulation of its popular kids’ yogurt Danimals in 2007. The drink will contain multi-functional probiotic Lactobacillus GG to aid in children’s gastrointestinal function, immune function and maintenance of oral health, and also removes all artificial colors, flavors and high fructose corn syrup.
Until mainstream consumers understand the differences between strains for specific health results and the need to consume adequate amounts of probiotics daily, the segment may remain a niche market.
“Unlike other health-related nutrients which can be processed and formulated in a large array of applications (think omega-3 and calcium), success will be determined by probiotics’ ability to show noticeable heath improvement,” Bouthillier says. “The immune system will take some time to be strengthened, and requires daily doses to remain strong and provide the healthy benefits. Education on the benefits of probiotics will be essential to the average American consumer.”
There is a scientific body of evidence pointing to probiotics efficacies, but in essence, it’s all about the numbers: At least 100 million live cells per serving is required to deliver a beneficial effect.
The probiotic strains in U.S. dairy applications consumers are most familiar in yogurt applications are Lactobacillus, Acidophilus and L. casei.
Probiotics used in the U.S. food industry typically belong to one of the following genera and species: Bifidobacterium lactis, Bifidobacteriuim longum, Lactobacillus acidophilus or Lactobacillus rhamnosus. Probiotic strains with documented human clinical studies to prove efficacy have unique alphanumeric strain designations. “Products made with documented strains have to have a probiotics cell count at least 1 billion per serving or as shown effective in clinical studies,” Curic-Bawden says.
The most prevalent documented probiotics in U.S. dairy products include Bifidobacterium lactis, Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12®, Lactobacillus casei, L.casei strain shirota (Yakult), L. rhamnosus LGG® and L. acidophilus LA-5®.
Each strain carries different functionalities. Most have documented effects on the balance of microflora in the gastrointestinal tract and/or the immune system. Clinical documentation exists for use of probiotics for regulation of intestinal transit, improvement of status of infant diarrhea and rotavirus, constipation, traveler’s diarrhea, improved natural defense/immune system and a positive effect on atopic eczema in infants, Curic-Bawden notes.
Lactobacillus is well known to help to improve food digestion, nutrient absorption, to stimulate immune system and minimize pro-cancerous agents in the large intestine. New clinical data is emerging on Lactobacillus capacity to decrease the mortality incidence in clostridium bacterium infections (botulism, tetanus and gas gangrene) and to improve radiology cancer treatment, Bouthillier notes.
Meanwhile, further clinical substantiation is sure to follow recent observations about Lactobacillus and its impact on minimizing the symptoms of irritable bowel and other intestinal disorders, as well as potentially reducing cholesterol levels.
“It often takes years to build the proper scientific documentation necessary to support credible market claims,” Curic-Bawden says.
On a global basis, all types of fermented products supply consumers with probiotics. “Dairy products, including yogurts, are intrinsically considered healthy, and the presence of live and active (bacterial) culture in yogurt is well accepted and recognized as a sign of quality,” Curic-Bawden says.
Consumer acceptance and the combination of what DMS’ Koekkoek dubs “efficacy and stability in the end application” are behind yogurt-type products’ leading roles in the market. Simply put, fermented products are suited to probiotic stability.
In addition, the need to refrigerate yogurt provides a good environment to maintain a sufficient level of live and active cells until the end of 42 to 60 days of shelf life, Curic-Bawden says. However, survival rates are strain specific and must be tested for each probiotics strain/dairy matrix.
Fermented dairy products have limitless opportunities for probiotics applications, according to Curic-Bawden. The short shelf life of refrigerated fluid milk makes it a good probiotics delivery system. Flavored milk, in particular, may help mask acidic tone flavor challenges created by the beneficial bacteria, Bouthillier says.
Further innovations in probiotics are expected in not only new flavors and fruits, but also in desirable levels of carbohydrates and added natural sweeteners, Curic-Bawden says. “The trend is already shifting towards ‘all natural’ and generally more healthy products,” she says. “Probiotics are in this respect very flexible; they can be complemented with other health beneficial ingredients: plant sterols, antioxidants, prebiotics (FOS, GOS) and omega-3 fatty acids.”
One rarely used potential option in yogurt industry is probiotic treatment with lactase, Curic-Bawden says. “The resulting yogurt will not only be lactose-free, but also slightly sweeter due to the residual glucose,” she explains.
While limited data is available on applications of probiotics in cheese, some varieties are under consideration as potential probiotic carriers. Delivering the appropriate probiotic dosage in the form of a cheese stick is one interesting concept for the category, Bouthillier says.
The biggest cheese challenge is to incorporate probiotics in sufficient levels per serving without a negative effect on texture, taste and flavor, Curic-Bawden says. Sterile constraints required for probiotics incorporation may likewise prove challenging, Bouthillier adds.
Meanwhile, frozen desserts can be excellent delivery systems for probiotics, and there is additional potential for frozen soy- and rice-based products.
Curic-Bawden reports tested strains Bifidobacterium BB-12 and L. acidophilus LA-5 had excellent survival rates when tested in ice cream, even after two years of shelf life.
To ensure the daily dose of beneficial probiotics is provided, the number of frozen strains injected to the mix needs to be more than 1 billion, Bouthillier says, “but it is feasible.”
Cathy Sivak is a freelance journalist and a former editor of Dairy Field.$OMN_arttitle="A New Force";?> $OMN_artauthor="Cathy Sivak";?>