Natural Foods Merchandiser

Good bacteria invade natural products

by Vicky Uhland

You know probiotics have moved from the digestive stream to the mainstream when they become the subject of a "Saturday Night Live" parody.

In an April skit on the late-night TV show, Kristen Wiig's impersonation of Jamie Lee Curtis, spokeswoman for Activia, Dannon's probiotic-spiked yogurt, tells viewers she's thrilled to "eat this yogurt that makes you crap." And she's not alone. Constipated consumers are downing so many probiotic products that the global market for bacteria-boosted foods is expected to reach $17 billion in 2013, up from $13.8 billion this year, according to Wellesley, Mass. –based BCC Research.

Once limited to dairy products like kefir and fermented foods like miso and sauerkraut, probiotics are popping up in everything from juice to cereal. In 2007, Nutraingredients reported New York-based research firm Datamonitor tracked a total of 523 new probiotic food and beverage SKUs, up from 153 in 2003. Consumers are increasingly understanding that probiotics do more than just help them poop—studies show that these beneficial bacteria that camp out in our guts can also reduce the risk of colorectal cancer, improve immunity, fight inflammation, treat urinary- and genital-tract infections, and tackle bowel diseases such as colitis. In fact, the Port Washington, New York-based NPD Group research firm lists probiotics among the top five ingredients Americans want to add to their diets, along with whole grains, fiber, omega-3s and antioxidants.

But with so many food manufacturers pushing probiotics, it can be difficult to determine whether a product is excremental—in a good way or a bad way. According to a 2006 American Academy of Microbiology report, "At present the quality of probiotics available to consumers in food products around the world is unreliable." Here's a guide to some of the key components to watch for in the new crop of probiotic foods.

Not just dairy anymore
Probiotics by definition are live organisms, and keeping them that way can be a challenge for food and beverage manufacturers. First of all, they have to survive the perilous journey through the digestive tract, past the gatekeeper stomach acids, before they can find a home in the gut, warding off unfriendly intruders. Dairy products provide a coating that can protect probiotics. But scientists are increasingly discovering probiotic strains that are tough enough to make their way through the intestinal tract on their own.

"There are over 500 strains of probiotics found in the human gut, so there's a lot of evolving science here. Clearly, there are a lot of unknown cultures [of probiotics] that can provide health benefits for the host," says Rob Hurlbut, CEO of San Francisco-based Attune Foods, which makes Chocolate Probiotic Wellness Bars and Granola Probiotic Wellness Bars.

Hurlbut says other primary factors that affect probiotics' survival are temperature and water activity. Ideally, you want a dry, refrigerated product, but having just one or the other will work, he says. "Yogurt has high water content but the refrigeration helps keep the probiotics alive until the consumer gets them." Attune's bars are made to be refrigerated but can survive a couple weeks on a shelf without losing their probiotic boost, Hurlbut says. The fat in the chocolate and the yogurt-like coating on the granola bars limits the probiotic-killing water content in the bars, he says.

GoodBelly, a new probiotic fruit drink developed by Steve Demos, founder of Silk and other WhiteWave soy foods, relies on refrigeration to keep its probiotics alive. Although most probiotic strains are acid-tolerant, "the key is to have a robust strain that has proven survivability," says Armin Salmen, vice president of research and development for Boulder, Colo.-based NextFoods, manufacturer of GoodBelly.

GoodBelly's Lactobacillus plantarum 299v and Bifodobacterium lactis probiotics have been shown in studies to not only survive the stomach's acids, but also the acids in fruit juice. Still, Salmen points out, refrigeration prolongs the shelf life of most probiotics. "In general, lower temperatures are better," he says.

So how do shelf-stable probiotic products like Kashi Vive cereal stay effective? Spokespeople for Kashi, which is owned by Kellogg Co., wouldn't say, claiming that information is proprietary. Salmen says the cereal and other shelf-stable products could contain freeze-dried probiotics that don't have to be refrigerated to be beneficial. Eventually, consumers might be able to buy "a little bag of probiotics that you can pour on a product," he says. "But the effectiveness of something like that remains to be seen."

Be a probiotics pro

The International Probiotics Association was founded in 2001 by leading companies in the probiotics industry. Its goal is to not only create a network between science and industry but also to standardize probiotic-testing protocols. Eventually, IPA wants to create a probiotic seal to ensure consumers they're actually getting the healthy bacteria the product promises. Until then, the organization offers the following checklist to ask manufacturers.

What is the colony-forming-unit count at the time of the product's expiration?
Probiotics are measured in CFUs, with anywhere from 1 billion to 10 billion per day considered beneficial. Some products, like Attune's wellness bars, pack in extra probiotics at manufacture to ensure enough are left as the product nears the end of its shelf life.

What's on the label?
Are the probiotics clearly identified on the label, including the strain, or at least the genus and species? If a trademarked name is used, the actual genus and species should be included on the label. This gives retailers and consumers the information they need to research the probiotic's effectiveness.

How to know if it's working
Another fact to take into account when evaluating probiotic products: Not every strain works for everyone, but it's easy to measure a product's effectiveness. As Mary Adams, vice president of marketing for GoodBelly probiotic juices, puts it: "Not many functional foods can offer a tangible benefit like, ‘After a week, I can go to the bathroom.'" Is the manufacturer willing to refund the purchase price if a consumer doesn't see results within a month?

Common, well-researched probiotics include:

Bifidobacterium animalis, bifidum, infantis, lactis and longum Lactobacillus acidophilus, bulgaricus, casei, fermentum, plantarum, reuteri and rhamnosus Pediococcus acidilactici Bacillus coagulans

Source: International Probiotics Association

Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 24,28

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