Yogurt consumption in the United States has grown to 14.9 pounds per capita in 2013 from 6.5 pounds per capita in 2000, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The growth re-energized many yogurt manufacturers and marketers. Consumers had a seemingly insatiable appetite for these dairy case darlings. In the last five to six years, higher-protein “Greek” yogurts provided much of the energy that propelled category sales to new heights.

However, the novelty of Greek-style yogurts may have run its course. Companies are now battling in the trenches for market share. In a competitive free market, each company will go on the offensive to tell consumers their products taste better, have more nutrition (protein content), deliver a better price/value ratio, have the simplest ingredient statement and offer the most convenience.

Cultures, probiotic bacteria

But wait a minute. Isn’t one of the key reasons we started to consume yogurt in the first place was because it was associated with living longer and healthier lives (read Metchnikoff’s observations in the early 1900s)? Because these bacteria in yogurt are microscopic, they are easily and perhaps conveniently ignored, downplayed or relegated to company websites instead of the front panel of a yogurt package. And since consumers’ general thinking concerning bacteria primarily has been that they cause illness, talking about “healthy, good-for-you” bacteria in yogurt could be a daunting challenge for even the best marketer.

A seal of approval?

The use of the National Yogurt Association’s Seal for Live and Active Cultures has educated some consumers.

But consumers might not fully understand that the NYA seal does not delineate known “probiotic” bacteria (e.g. Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM, Lactobacillus casei subsp. rhamnosus LGG, Bifidobacterium Bb-12, Lactobacillus paracasei F19, Bacillus coagulans BC30 and many others) from the traditional yogurt cultures (Lactobacillus bulgaricus andStreptococcus thermophilus). In other words, the current NYA seal is no guarantee that there are probiotic bacteria in adequate amounts to confer any specific health benefit.

In fact, when I asked Mary Ellen Sanders of Dairy and Food Cultures Technologies (who is an expert on probiotic bacteria) about this topic, she said that “a NYA-like seal that had a separate designation to communicate the specific minimum number (1 million per gram) of a specific strain of established probiotic bacteria would be valuable.”

Without some independent body establishing a “probiotic seal,” some manufacturers have chosen to set their own criteria to make claims concerning probiotic bacteria in their fermented milk products and implications to human health.

Some might suggest that bringing more attention to probiotics will just confuse consumers. However, they are pretty savvy about obtaining information.

As one case in point: some doctors are now providing to their patients flyers endorsed by the American Gastroenterological Association about probiotics and their use to promote digestive health and treat digestive diseases including irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and infectious diarrhea. See www.gastro.org/patient-center/diet-medications/probiotics.

Choose compatible strains

Of course, delivering probiotics at the right level is easier said than done because these organisms sometimes can be affected over the shelf life of the product by some strains of the traditional yogurt organisms used in the manufacturing process.

According to Mirjana Curic-Bawden of Chr. Hansen, “Probiotic survival is strain-specific and may also depend on the yogurt manufacturing process conditions.”

So it’s important to work with suppliers to get the best strains that work for the yogurt you are producing.

While evidence is limited, it has been suggested that milk or fermented milk is a good delivery vehicle for probiotics because milk acts to protect these bacteria from cytotoxic bile acids and other challenges to these organisms’ viability during food digestion. Additionally, some food components may serve as a prebiotic to promote probiotic growth and survival. Recently, Yin et.al. (2014) was the first to show that growing these probiotic cultures in milk conferred measurable effects on the intestinal microbiota of mice.

 So as all the dust settles over the hoopla of Greek yogurt, don’t forget that the health benefits of including probiotics in yogurts may provide a key point for product distinction in a market where consumers are looking for real (natural) health and wellness foods.