Yoghurt is the leading food-based delivery system for probiotics — and there are more reasons than you imagined why this is so. Todd Runestad investigates the latest genomic research and the friendly bugs' emerging partnership with prebiotics
The undisputed champ of probiotics delivery is the dietary supplement. It would take perhaps a pound of yoghurt to pack the punch of a pill. But for those feckless few who refuse to pop a pill every day, we have the reigning food champ: dairy. Dairy's refrigeration and quick consumer consumption is the one-two punch that helps deliver live, active bacteria to the human GI tract where it provides the benefit.
"Exposure to stomach acid, pancreatic secretions and bile can decrease probiotic survival," says Christopher J Cifelli, PhD, director of nutrition research at the National Dairy Council, which is managed by Dairy Management Inc (DMI). "However, consuming probiotics with dairy foods buffers stomach acid and increases the likelihood that the probiotic will survive into the intestine."
Granted, micro-encapsulation and other technologies have extended shelf lives of beneficial bacteria, thereby allowing probiotics' integration into bars, chocolates, muffins, cereals, chews and drink mixes. Even so, there's something about dairy that draws in consumers.
"From a nutrition perspective, a fermented dairy product such as yoghurt is a good source of calcium, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and potassium," says Dannon spokesman Michael Neuwirth.
Everyone knows about Dannon's first-year launch of Activia yoghurt, containing Bifidus regularis, which netted $100 million in sales. Now in its third year on the market, Activia is the No. 2 yoghurt product in the $4.5 billion global category.
Hi ho the dairy, oh!
Apart from nutrition, dairy has some properties that are more than unique — they are downright provocative.
First is history. Milk and healthy bugs go back a long way. Lactic-acid bacteria and probiotic cultures were in fermented milks for centuries.
History, shmistory, you say?
Consider: "That historical association has allowed these organisms to evolve to an environment that humans have created with the development of the dairy industry. There may be key functional advantages to those organisms that are influenced by the dairy environment," says Todd Klaenhammer, a genomic researcher and professor at North Carolina State University who works on beneficial aspects of lactic-acid bactera and probiotic cultures in dairy.
"What we've seen in our research is that when we expose bacteria, for example, to bile, these organisms turn on a lactose-metabolism gene. It's like they're expecting to see lactose, which is found only in milk," says Klaenhammer. "We also find when we grow Lactobacillus acidophilus in milk, some genes are turned on that are potentially important in the gastrointestinal tract. Because we have genomic tools, we can ask these types of questions — if there are elements in dairy that help promote probiotic function. We're getting interesting results at the moment."
Consider: Bifidobacteria is some of the first bacteria developed in newborn babies. It's the milk coming from the mother that promotes the development of organisms and is critical to the development of a child's immune system. The proper bugs in your gut keep you healthy.
Research into probiotic properties is one big reason for the rise of the bug market. Genomics is one aspect of that research — it allows researchers to home in on the genetic content of the organisms and delineate the mechanism by which they either elicit the benefits or have activity on the body's mucosal surfaces. It is through this precise research that a range of health claims are being sought for different probiotic strains. A November 2008 Mintel market report notes that "yoghurts with specific health claims are going to be the biggest future growth vehicle."
For example, Cifelli says that research has demonstrated that lactose is a preferred fuel source for Bificobacterium longum, which has been shown to aid in digestion.
Probiotics supplier Danisco offers research-backed strains specifically selected to modulate the immune system, for intestinal health benefits, to maintain respiratory health in children and to restore and maintain healthy gut flora with antibiotics.
"All health benefits are strain-specific," says Peggy Steele, Danisco's probiotics global director. "That means that you will not be able to claim a specific benefit if you are not using the strain that has been used to prove this benefit, even if the strain you use is of the same family — bifidobacteria or lactobacilli, for example — or species, like B lactis or L acidophilus."
The next three market drivers
Three significant items should help the probiotics sector continue to blossom.
One is the diversification of dairy offerings. Kraft's LiveActive Natural Cheese Snacks, introduced in 2007, boasts more than one billion probiotic cultures per serving. "Older populations don't regularly eat yoghurt like the younger generations," says Dean Sommer, cheese technologist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, a DMI programme. "But they do enjoy cheese. Adding probiotics to cheese gives these consumers additional choices."
"Ice cream also holds promise," says Raj G Narasimmon, PhD, vice president of product research with DMI. "Frozen distribution preserves the probiotics for extended periods."
Another driver is the rise of 21st century probiotics able to withstand insult from digestion as well as processing. Probiotics supplier Nutraceutix's BIO-tract probiotic delivery system just received its third international patent for shelf life and effective gut delivery. Tougher strains mean longer shelf life, and that means a greater range of products besides dairy.
"Dairy will still remain a viable source for probiotics, but a whole new area of shelf-stable nonrefrigerated foods are becoming increasingly popular," says Mike Bush, vice president of business development at Ganeden Biotech, whose marketing partner for GanedenBC30 (a hardy strain of Bacillus coagulans with a two-year shelf life) is PL Thomas. "In 2008 alone, Ganeden Biotech helped launch eight new products with GanedenBC30 — and only two of them were in the dairy category."
Finally, research demonstrates a clear synergistic boost to probiotics mixed with their prebiotic 'lunch box.' Also, other fibre ingredients that complement probiotics health benefits will start showing up in products. In October 2008, Ganeden formed a partnership with GTC Nutrition, which produces NutraFlora brand FOS. In January 2009, Dannon rolled out a line extension for Activia with fibre.
The future, ahem, is friendly.