Dairy is enjoying its status as a top delivery system for functional ingredients, but there is still plenty of untapped potential that innovative manufacturers are in a position to milk. LYNDA SEARBY reports
The dairy industry has a lot to be proud of. By going where other categories fear to tread and gambling on functional ingredients, the category has emerged as a hotbed of innovation, and products that were previously considered commodities are commanding premium prices for their creators.
As Niklas Bj?rum, sales and marketing director with Swedish biotech firm Probi, puts it: "There are no other categories that have anywhere near as many functional ingredients. I would say most of the 'big' functional ingredients can be found in one dairy product or another and you wouldn't see that in any other food matrix."
And he won't get any arguments on this point from other ingredients suppliers. John Kurstjens, global marketing manager with Dutch lipid ingredients specialist Lipid Nutrition, says: "I agree that dairy is the leading delivery system for functional ingredients, and it's growing rapidly."
This anecdotal evidence is backed by market data, too. Leatherhead Food International reports that within the international functional-foods market, the dairy sector is the most active, ahead of cereal products and beverages. Dairy products account for nearly 43 per cent of market value, while cereal products command 19 per cent and beverages 14 per cent.
There are many reasons why dairy has been so successful in establishing itself as a key application area for functional ingredients. Dr Susan Lawlor is new technology and applications manager with Irish ingredients manufacturer Glanbia Nutritionals. She says: "Dairy has traditionally been the leading delivery system for functional ingredients, as consumers generally consider dairy products to be healthy and nutritious. At the same time, they address consumer needs such as convenience and 'on-the-go' consumption. In the past, many functional active ingredients were known to affect taste or opacity in applications. As a result, dairy was a 'haven,' which could mask the taste or appearance of these ingredients, making delivery easier."
Where from here?
However, just because the dairy market is well established in its use of functional ingredients doesn't mean that there is no scope for further innovation — particularly in the US. In a study of the market, UK-based Landell-Mills Consulting said there were many dairy products with intrinsic functional characteristics that were not being promoted to their full potential.
Irish researcher Market and Research agreed with this observation, saying: "The US market continues to be characterised by the relatively small and undeveloped functional dairy-products market, particularly with regard to functional yoghurts and active health drinks, which is the leading area of development in Europe."
Nowhere is the contrast in the European and US markets more marked than in probiotic dairy products. While the Europeans have embraced probiotic daily-dose drinks and yoghurts as a way of life, in the US there are deep-rooted perceptions that all bacteria are negative.
However, according to Bj?rum, US attitudes are changing, and consumers are slowly coming around to the idea that bacteria can be good for the health. "The US market has been a sleeping beauty," he says. "But it's a question of when it wakes up to probiotics — not if — and I think that time is now."
There is no doubt that this shift in public perceptions has something to do with the entry of French dairy giant Danone into the US market.
Danone tested the waters with the launch of probiotic low-fat yoghurt Activia last year. The brand has since built up sales of $100 million — a feat less than one tenth of all new products achieve in their first year in the US. This year, the company expanded its probiotic offering with the introduction of the DanActive dairy drink and Danimals with LGG drinks and low-fat yoghurt.
In Europe, although the 'gut health' probiotic-drink bandwagon is already full, there are still avenues for probiotics that haven't been explored.
Probiotic ice cream is one such area. To date, the only producer intrepid enough to take a chance on probiotic ice cream has been a Swedish manufacturer. While the product in question was discontinued a year ago, Bj?rum is adamant this was due to distribution problems rather than any shortcomings with the product itself, and sees no reason why probiotic ice cream shouldn't succeed in Europe.
Another application area that he believes offers untapped potential for probiotics is cheese. Cheese is proving an effective delivery system for cholesterol-lowering ingredients, with products like heartfelt+, a low-fat sterol-fortified cheese produced by independent UK dairy producer Fayrefield Foods; Hj?rtans Lust (Heart's Desire); a cholesterol-lowering cheese from Scandinavian dairy firm Skanemejerier; and cheese, with EPA and DHA supplied by Denomega, from California-based Omega Farms, all putting in strong performances.
"If cholesterol-lowering cheeses can be marketed successfully I have difficulties understanding why you shouldn't be able to create a good concept around a probiotic cheese," says Bj?rum. "From a physiological point of view cheese is a good matrix for including bacteria, as the fat in the cheese keeps the bacteria alive and you get quite a bit of growth when it enters your intestinal system."
And in fact, Kraft has just announced it's bringing to market in Canada a cheddar-cheese product with probiotics, called Kraft LiveActive.
Potential for immunity
In addition, new bacteria strains that offer benefits in areas other than gut health are being characterised and developed. Probi, for example, is conducting a large-scale clinical study on two lactobacillus strains, which, in initial pilot studies, were found to have a positive effect on the immune system.
"Immunology is the second biggest interest area for probiotics, after gut health. Even in the USA, when you're talking about immune reactions you get a positive response from consumers."
Probi hopes that the study will result in enough evidence to make hard claims about the effectiveness of these strains in treating common colds. Crucially, it is a claim area that consumers can easily relate to.
"The thing with health-driven positional claims is that the consumer must understand what they are paying a premium price for," says Mette Sveje, application manager, dairy, with Danish ingredients firm Danisco.
Besides its Howaru probiotic strains, Danisco has several prebiotic ingredients in its portfolio. Of particular interest to dairy producers is Litesse, a prebiotic dietary fibre.
According to Sveje, one of the main advantages of Litesse vs other prebiotic ingredients is that it is very well tolerated by the body — up to 90g can be consumed daily without any intestinal discomfort. She says that makes it particularly interesting for application in kids' dairy drinks. "Children cannot always control their consumption, so it's important that any active ingredients are safe when consumed in large quantities."
As well as its prebiotic properties, the ingredient also has the ability to act as a 'fat mimic,' giving semi-skimmed milk drinks or low-fat yoghurts a creamier, rounder mouthfeel.
Weight management or satiety-inducing ingredients are another potential area of development for dairy manufacturers.
There's nothing new about using dairy as a delivery system for weight-management products. As David Jobse, product manager, Fabuless, with DSM Food Specialties, says: "Most dairy brands have a line that contains fewer calories, less fat and so on."
What is new, however, is the inclusion of functional ingredients that can actively promote weight management, without the need for reducing fat, sugar and calories — essentially allowing consumers to have their cake and eat it, too.
DSM's Fabuless is one of the ingredients driving this trend. Fabuless is a combination of encapsulated palm and oat oils, which are formulated in an emulsion. The ingredient works by putting a 'brake' on digestion. When digestion starts at a delayed stage, the body identifies a relatively high level of undigested fat and suppresses the hunger signals that would normally be triggered a few hours after a meal.
Campina, one of Europe's largest dairy firms, has used Fabuless in Optimel Control, a one-shot dairy drink aimed at weight-conscious consumers in the Netherlands. That five million of the drinks flew off the shelves in the space of three months is, says Jobse, proof that the market is ready for such concepts.
Lipid Nutrition is marketing two weight-management ingredients for dairy applications.
Pine-nut oil, extracted from the seeds of the Korean pine, forms the basis of Pinnothin, the company's new appetite-suppressing ingredient. Pinnothin is said to stimulate the hunger-suppressing hormone, CCK (cholecystokinin) and GLP1 (glucagonlike peptide).
Clarinol, meanwhile, is a safflower oil-derived weight-management ingredient that uses the benefits of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). In clinical trials it has been shown to help reduce body fat in specific areas and increase lean muscle mass without extra diet or exercise.
Glanbia Nutritionals has developed a whey protein-derived milk mineral complex specifically for weight-management applications. Branded Prolibra, the ingredient promotes fat loss and maintains lean body mass.
One of the issues with functional ingredients is that part of the appeal of dairy products is their 'natural goodness,' and fortified foods will always have artificial associations at odds with this image. Thus ingredients that emphasise the inherent positive properties of dairy products, such as calcium content, can tap into consumer concerns. Glanbia's TruCal, for example, allows manufacturers to make 'enriched with dairy calcium' claims. TruCal is a natural dairy calcium that provides a variety of essential minerals, including calcium and magnesium for optimal bone and health development. It is available in neutral-tasting powder form and is said to lack the bitterness and saltiness observed with some mineral powders.