Sharon Gerdes
Sharon Gerdes is a certified food scientist and author who writes extensively about dairy’s role in health and wellness. Learn more at

The COVID-19 pandemic increased consumer interest in immune health and sales of probiotic foods and beverages. Circana (previously IRI and NPD) reports that probiotic beverages have increased both dollar and unit sales for the past three years, and probiotics were found in over 30 beverage subcategories.

In its Top Ten Trends for 2023, FMCG Gurus found that 66% of consumers worldwide planned to address immune health, followed by 56% who plan to address digestive health. Its report noted, “Immune and digestive health will continue to be the wellness priorities for consumers over the next twelve months, especially as many recognize the two to be interlinked.”

Gut microbiome

The gut microbiome is an important system for both immune health and digestive health, and the impact of COVID on the gut may depend on the severity of COVID infection as well as the treatment received.

One study published this March, (“Long-term gastrointestinal outcomes of COVID-19,”) found that individuals with “Long COVID-19” exhibited increased risks and one-year burdens of a wide range of incident gastrointestinal disorders.

A 2022 study by Rutgers scientists, (“Alterations of the fecal microbiota in relation to acute COVID-19 infection and recovery”), found that COVID-19 acute infection disrupted a healthy balance between good and bad microbes in the gut, especially with antibiotic treatment.

“This study found that while some people did experience changes to their gut microbiome with COVID-19, the changes did not last and were more related to antibiotics prescribed around the same time than to the virus itself,” says Miguel Freitas, vice president of health and scientific affairs for Danone North America. “This points to the importance of developing foods and beverages aimed not only at restoring the microbiota of diseased patients, but at helping fortify the microbiome against disruption, as well.”

Freitas elaborated on the importance of the gut microbiome in a recent Dairy Foods “Let’s Talk Dairy” podcast (Episode 24), explaining that a healthy gut microbiome affects not only digestive health, but also has the potential to improve mood through the gut-brain axis, and to reduce the risk of diseases such as obesity and diabetes.

It’s important to remember that probiotics are condition-specific. In a recent webinar, Christopher Martin, Ph.D., principal clinical development scientist, Chr. Hansen Human Health, reviewed the results of a clinical trial on the probiotic strain Lactobacillus acidophilus DDS-1. Benefits include: reduced abdominal discomfort level, increase in the number of participants with normal stool consistency, reduced bloating/abdominal distension, helped alleviate perceived stress, and improved IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) related quality of life.” Currently this strain is only offered for use in supplements. However, Chr. Hansen is working actively to make it available to be used in dairy foods.

‘Biotics in dairy foods

Prebiotics can enhance gut health by improving calcium absorption, improving glucose metabolism, and reducing gut transit time. Chicory root, banana, cocoa, and resistant starch are just a few examples of prebiotics that are frequently used in dairy applications. Many prebiotics are also dietary fibers, which are lacking in most American diets.

Postbiotics are a preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that can support immune and gut health. “Consumers credit gut health as the top reason for their interest in postbiotics,” explains Jenna Nelson, EpiCor channel lead at Cargill. The postbiotic EpiCor can be incorporated into chocolate milk, yogurt, or pudding, she adds.

Synbiotics, a mixture of a prebiotic and a probiotic that work independently to promote gut health, can be found in a probiotic yogurt with inulin. Dairy foods are a good vehicle to deliver synbiotics, as pills and sachet supplements are usually not large enough to deliver an efficacious dose of the prebiotic portion. 

Duplibiotics has been proposed to describe how an unabsorbed substrate, such as a polyphenol, modulates the gut microbiota by both antimicrobial and prebiotic actions. There is a growing body of evidence that microbes are key to liberating polyphenol phytochemicals in the gastrointestinal tract. Tart cherries are an example of a polyphenol-rich food often used in yogurt.

The dairy advantage

In general, fermented dairy foods are a better vehicle than probiotics supplements for the delivery of live bacteria to the digestive system. Dairy foods can buffer the stomach acids allowing good bacteria to survive and make it to the large intestine. Proprietary research from Cargill suggests consumers associate ‘biotics with digestive health. Further, two of the top three functional foods used to consume ‘biotics are dairy products: yogurt and cottage cheese.

Recently Kemps introduced a smooth cottage cheese with probiotics. This new offering “packs a protein punch with almost twice as much protein per ounce as most yogurts, along with real, blended fruit, probiotics, and no high-fructose corn syrup,” the company states.

Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) launched Good Culture Probiotic Milk in whole and 2% reduced fat options. Each 12-fluid oz serving includes 1 billion probiotic cultures thanks to its BC30 probiotic. This milk is also a good source of vitamins A and D, the company says.

In addition to being excellent delivery vehicles for the various ‘biotics, dairy foods also contain important nutrients, including calcium and protein, that probiotic supplements don’t provide.

Sharon Gerdes is a certified food scientist and author who writes extensively about dairy’s role in health and wellness. Learn more at