Probiotics' flourishing future

The global market for ?good? bacteria is slated to more than double in value by 2010. But there are some pretty tough obstacles to surmount before this potential can be realised. Lynda Searby explains

Spearheaded by Scandinavia, probiotics have established themselves as a $70 million market and inspired a slew of innovations in Europe. To date, the dairy category, pioneered by such players as Danone, Yakult Honsha and Valio, has dominated new product developments. While there have been other pockets of dynamism, no category has really captured consumer imagination in the same way.

The technical limitations of probiotic cultures are one impediment to innovation; probiotics are highly sensitive bacteria that are destroyed by heat and other processing conditions. However, improvements to the stability of probiotics coupled with new delivery methods are taking probiotics into new platforms.

Swedish dairy company Skanemejerier was the first to break out of the dairy mould with the launch of the probiotic fruit drink ProViva in 1994. The drink contains Probi?s Lactobacillus plantarum 299v bacteria, which is said to be a particularly robust bacteria strain. Probi is currently working with Skanemejerier on several new probiotic drink concepts that could be introduced next year, but Probi chief executive officer Per Bengtsson is keeping tight-lipped about precise details.

In neighbouring Finland, dairy giant Valio has had a stronghold on the probiotics juice market with its Gefilus brand since 1997. The drinks — which contain Lactobacillus GG — are now being exported to Sweden, where Pia Kontunen, senior vice president of corporate communications, says they are enjoying ?moderate sales.? And in September, Tine BA in Norway became Valio?s first licensee for the probiotic juice technology, marketing a range of juice drinks containing 95 per cent fruit under the Biola brand.

But despite Valio?s success in dairy and drinks, Kontunen is adamant that the group has no interest in expanding into other categories. Its strategy is to create probiotic products for everyday consumption. ?To benefit, people need to consume probiotic foods regularly,? she says. ?So it follows that food types should be products that are part of the daily diet.?

For manufacturers with the inclination to take probiotics into new platforms, it seems technology is finally coming of age. As reported by FF&N in September, Swedish probiotics producer Medipharm has developed coated bacteria capable of withstanding the processes involved in ice cream and cereal production.

BioGaia in Sweden, meanwhile, has focused on packaging as a means of taking probiotics into uncharted territory with its LifeTop Straw and Cap. The LifeTop Straw is a telescopic drinking straw with an L. reuteri oil droplet inside. The sensitive bacteria are only released when the drink is consumed.

The concept has been adopted by Orchard Maid, which is marketing an organic yoghurt drink in the UK.

The LifeTop Cap allows bacteria to be stored for up to 18 months in a bottle cap. A protective blister is incorporated into the cap and when the top is opened, the bacteria fall into the drink. Steffan P?lsson, vice president of marketing with BioGaia, says a French product incorporating the cap is expected to debut by the end of the year.

Besides exploring delivery systems, BioGaia is also developing strains of bacteria to address specific health issues. Traditionally, probiotic products have been marketed on their ability to promote gastrointestinal health. However, a growing body of science now supports the role of certain strains in boosting the immune system, combating diarrhoea and contributing to oral health by reducing gingivitis.

It was this last benefit that inspired BioGaia to launch the world?s first probiotic dental health product in May. Available in sugar-free chewing gum and lozenge format, ProDenta contains L. reuteri prodentis — a strain that has been shown to counter the effects of bad bacteria in the mouth. BioGaia?s first line of attack has been to target Swedish dentists and dental hygienists. International plans for entering Japan, Finland and some Arabic countries are also in the making. P?lsson predicts that strain selection will become a key focus in the development of future probiotic products. ?I think what will happen is that products and probiotic strains will become more specialised, targeting better-defined problems or areas of health care,? he says.

It?s a view that is shared by Probi?s Bengtsson. ?The scientific community now seems ready to accept that probiotics do more than keep the intestines functioning,? he says.

Further advancement in strain selection came in the form of a probiotic capsule for women?s health from Chr Hansen in Denmark. Called Urex-Cap-5, the product is the result of an alliance with Urex Biotech, a Canadian R&D company. It is based on two strains of lactic acid bacteria — Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and Lactobacillus RC-14 — that have been demonstrated to prevent bacterial, fungal or yeast infections of the vagina. Chr Hansen says that as well as being used as a dietary supplement, Urex-Cap-5 can be formulated into dairy products.

Hurdles in North America
The US has not been as quick as Europe to embrace probiotics. At $143 million, although large in relation to Europe, the US market for probiotics is heavily dominated by dietary supplements. There are a number of explanations for the slower evolution of the US market. Firstly, the Nordic countries have an age-old heritage of consuming fermented dairy products, which doesn?t exist in the US. Talking about intestinal activity is also an alien concept to many Americans. As Hartley Pond, technical sales manager at Illinois-based probiotic producer VDF/FutureCeuticals, says: ?I believe that historically there has been a misconception on the part of American consumers that all bacteria are potentially harmful, and this has led to slower acceptance of probiotics.?

Stephen Lukas of probiotics supplier CPB International in Pennsylvania believes viability issues also plague the dietary supplements market. ?This has created market confusion and made many users sceptical,? he says.

It?s a sentiment shared by Tim Gamble, vice president of sales and marketing with Washington-based probiotics producer Nutraceutix. The company manufactures for a number of ?very visible brands,? including several lines for health retailer General Nutrition Centers.

Gamble says studies carried out by academic and research organisations have found that a high percentage of dietary supplements on the market have no viability whatsoever. However, he predicts that in the future, more stringent labelling will force dietary supplements to be more viable.

But such obstacles have not deterred intrepid manufacturers. In 1999, before most American consumers had even heard of probiotics, Stonyfield Farm launched YoBaby, an organic whole milk yoghurt for babies and toddlers with live cultures. YoBaby has enjoyed unfettered growth since its launch. It is now the number two kids? multipack brand in the US and has grown 36 per cent so far this year, against category growth of 6.5 per cent.

Perhaps its success can partly be attributed to the fact Stonyfield hasn?t gone overboard on the probiotics angle. The company?s primary marketing has focused on other advantages, namely the fact it is a whole milk yoghurt (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends whole milk dairy products for children under age 2) and is organic. While the yoghurts are promoted as containing six live active cultures, this is a support rather than an emphasis point.

Dannon, by contrast, took a more direct approach when it introduced American consumers to DanActive — known as Actimel in Europe — last year, marketing the drink on its ?ability to help strengthen your body?s defenses naturally? and seeking to replicate the consumer education recipe that has proved so effective in Europe.

?We believe now is the time to educate consumers that certain food products can provide health benefits well beyond basic nutrition,? explains Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations with Dannon. ?Increasingly we believe that Americans will come to understand that foods can help with health maintenance and even illness prevention.?

Dannon is well aware that it has its work cut out. ?Probiotics is still a new concept in the USA but awareness is growing,? Neuwirth explains. ?Dannon is making investments to further this education via health care providers as well as direct to consumers.?

All market data quoted in this article comes from Frost & Sullivan?s August 2003 report European and United States Probiotics Markets.
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