Between micro-encapsulation technologies and a greater understanding of when to add probiotics during food processing, as well as novel carriers that boost the nutritional payload of bacterial strains, a whole new world of food-based probiotic products is coming to market.
"Probiotics are hot, hot, hot and it seems like the United States is finally ready to embrace talking about bacteria in the gut," said Donna Berry, editor of Dairy Food Magazine, at a recent conference.
Yoghurt has been the most prominent probiotic food to date, but bars, cereals, cheeses, chocolates, cookies, ice cream and juices have begun to appear on the market. According to the Mintel Global New Products Database, 238 new probiotic products hit store shelves in 2006, up from 70 in 2002. Europe still dominates but Kraft recently launched the first probiotic cheeses in Canada under its LiveActive brand, with the US soon to follow. They join other major food makers such as General Mills and Dannon with North American probiotic offerings.
With such developments in its sights, Canadian probiotics supplier Lallemand established a new division to focus on probiotic development for functional foods called Lal'Food. "If you're taking a probiotic straight, your concern is getting it past the low pH of the stomach, and so you know micro-encapsulation will help tremendously," said Jim Kopp, vice president of nutritional baked goods at Lallemand. "When you go into food products, it is an application with many variables, each a little different. You have to look at each food matrix, how the ingredients will affect the probiotic count and integrity until the end of shelf life."
One company that has done such testing is Attune Wellness bars, based in California. Its chocolate and fruit bars contain DSM-sourced Lactobacillus acidophilus, L casei and Bifidobacteria lactis — in quantities purported to be five times higher than that found in regular yoghurt. "Not everyone eats yoghurt. But there's a 95 per cent penetration for chocolate," said Kathy Oneto, vice president of marketing at Attune Foods. "We looked for micro-encapsulated strains that could survive, and had some human clinical studies attached to them."
With suppliers and manufacturers working at ensuring probiotic bacterial counts are effective until the end of shelf life they may take up the PR campaign to boost probiotics awareness beyond the estimated 20 per cent of Americans who have heard of them. But with 60 per cent suffering from one digestive issue or another, this figure may not be so low for very long.
See "Probiotics: Strains matter" for the latest scientific research on probiotics.