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Probiotics manufacturers reveal formulation, marketing strategies

The fundamental basis of the probiotics market is its compelling research. Marketing then follows, which raises the question of whether the marketing aligns with the research. Finally, there are regulations, which tend to kick in when the marketing and research do not line up. Functional Ingredients' Editor-in-Chief Todd Runestad set up a revealing session on the state of the probiotics market at Nutracon 2011. Here's part of that session.

Todd Runestad: Is probiotics research in its infancy, or is it a toddler, or in its teen years?

Armin Salmen


Armin Salmen, VP R&D/QA, Next Foods: Certainly not in its infancy if you consider the body of research that already exists, especially in areas like digestive and immune health. Maybe older toddler status.

Grant Washington-SmithGrant Washington-Smith, business development manager, BLIS Technologies: Infancy implies that you don't really know what you don't know. The probiotics industry has grown to the extent where they know a lot of what they don't know. So, pre-pubescent adolescent.

Scott Bush, VP health and nutrition marketing, Danisco USA: There's a lot more consumer recognition about probiotics than there was. There's a lot of good science that's been done. But there are a lot of disbelievers still out there, among consumers and in the medical community. There's a long way to go. We've got a Scott Bushgreat category here. Science has to continue to move us so that people are influenced more by than just the marketing, but because the research supports it.

Mike Bush, VP business development, Ganeden Biotech: Regardless of the amount of research, it's important to relate it to consumers. How many regular consumers know that gut-associated lymphoid tissue affects the immune system? If you talk about GALT to 99 percent of U.S. consumers they don't know what you're talking about. The onus is on the probiotics industry in general, through education and marketing, to inform consumersMike Bush about things that they just don't teach in ninth grade science.

Runestad: In about 2005, one of the probiotic zeitgeists changed from single-strain to multiple-strain formulations.

Mike Bush: We focus on single-strain efficacy. Most multistrain products are more marketing products than research products.

Scott Bush: I can give you an example where the opposite is true. We did a study with an acidophilus culture or an acidophilus culture with bifidobacteria culture, both delivered at 10 billion CFUs, looking at cold and flu incidence, duration and symptomology. In both cases we showed a statistically significant benefit in a number of symptoms and incidence and duration versus placebo. But in this case the acidophilus plus bifido was superior to the acidophilus alone. So, at least in one example we see a place for a combination product. But I agree with Mike, if a formulation has 12 strains in it, let's face it, a number of them are in there for marketing.

Runestad: EFSA is making it clear that it wants claims on finished products and not the supplied ingredient. Is EFSA crushing the industry in Europe?

Scott Bush: The intent of EFSA was very good – it wants to protect the consumer. There are 20 or 25 probiotic products at my local community pharmacy. If I pick them up and read the labels a lot of them make benefit statements like ‘balance gut microflora' or ‘improve immune defenses.' These are some very generic statements. In reality, the companies that have products there probably have no science to back up even those innocuous claims. EFSA's intent is to say, “Let's have some science and not just general statements that everyone makes.” EFSA's intent is good; the execution, I think, will come. There was no guidance in how to submit a dossier, which was very frustrating. Things are slow in Europe but they'll get caught up.

Runestad: Let's talk marketing. In the pantheon of probiotic yogurts, Dannon is the market leader. We've all seen Jamie Lee Curtis on TV talking about “regulating your digestive system” with its flagship product, Activia. It's aimed at the general consumer and they've made an impressive ROI. You have other companies, like Bio-K Plus, which is sold almost as a medical food. And then there's GoodBelly from NextFoods, which is more like an Expo West-style values-based company. Armin, how is GoodBelly resonating with consumers?

Salmen: We make a line of probiotic juices with digestive health benefits. In the U.S., you have to communicate the benefits. To say ‘probiotics' resonates with maybe 15 or 20 percent of consumers on a good day, but to say “supports digestive health” hits all consumers and people can feel the benefit, and that's both powerful and rare in functional food products.

Digestive health vs. immunity

Runestad: Are consumers able to make the leap between digestive health and immunity?

Salmen: You have to explain it to them. The vast majority does not understand it. There's a lot of educational work to do.

Runestad: What's the more powerful sell: digestive health or immunity?

Salmen: Definitely digestive health because it's more credible and believable and noticeable. If you can go to the bathroom again, it's very noticeable. Of course we have a huge body of clinical evidence to support that. If you position the product – and we tried that in the beginning – in immune health, you get sick once during the season and you are disappointed it didn't work for you.

Runestad: It seems that dairy is the preferred delivery system. Armin, would you like to call me a liar on that?

Salmen: It's a constant battle we are fighting. When people see we have a 2.7oz shot product, they think they have to have a yogurt, too. When they find out it's a nondairy product they say, ‘Oh, it's nondairy? Give it to me!'

Runestad: What about supplements? You can pack more into pill. If people have a serious problem shouldn't they be gravitating toward the pill?

Salmen: Of course not.

Runestad: Thank you. Spoken like a true beverage manufacturer.

Salmen: If you have studies of certain probiotics at 1 to 10 to 20 billion – at the end of the day the effect is what counts.

Formulation considerations

Runestad: Does the day have to come when manufacturers say, 'This is how many CFUs we have in this drink'? This is de rigeur on supplement bottles but food and drink makers only mention strains, not dosage.

Scott Bush: To defend foods: Foods have a short shelf life and they're kept cold, which is fantastic for keeping the culture viable. The challenge with supplements is that a lot of them now are coming out of the refrigerator and are going on to the shelf. And while a lot of us use stability studies at, say, 25 degrees Celsius, the culture doesn't always see that. They might be shipped without refrigeration; they may sit on the loading dock. They might turn the air conditioner in the store off at night or on the weekends. So there is a real challenge even if you're putting a number on a bottle to meet that label claim. It's not to say that one delivery vehicle is better than another. I think Armin hit it on the head: You want to deliver the dose that has been proven efficacious scientifically.

Runestad: So is the solution to just put more organisms in?

Scott Bush: It's partly overdosing but it's also using manufacturing and stabilization systems, which will extend the shelf life. 

Washington-Smith: In probiotic manufacturing the biggest challenge is stability on the shelf. Because ours [BLIS K12] is an oral probiotic, we can't encapsulate the organism. It has to be viable as soon as it enters the mouth. That's led to enormous issues on stability. 

From my perspective, the delivery system of dairy products in particular is probably the most ideal for foods because from the consumer's perspective it integrates seamlessly into the daily consumption. A consumer doesn't have to necessarily think about taking tablets or capsules. But the problem from the food manufacturer's perspective is the cost of that dose. The incremental cost when you're dealing with the economies of food manufacturing does become problematic. When you have a product that confers anything more than a few cents per delivery system to that product, that becomes a problem.

Runestad: That's a great point, but Dannon got fined and was told that if they wanted to make their Activia claims they needed to put in three times the dosage level. Because they're already selling at a 40 percent premium, can't they just put in three times the dose, or would that change the mouthfeel or taste?

Scott Bush: Just to clarify, they were told to put in three times the dose because that's what was tested. The reason they got their FDA letter was because in their studies you couldn't just consume it once a day – it was consumed three times a day. The promotion was effectively saying once a day. If you look at the ads on TV now, and I can't quote Jamie Lee Curtis verbatim, but it's not once a day [anymore], it's re-messaged.

Runestad: Is that good, because from a consumer health benefit perspective, who's going to drink three Activias a day?

Scott Bush: They're not the only ones. If anybody noticed on the Align probiotic by Procter & Gamble, when it first came out, on the package it talked about relief of occasional gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. You go back to the P&G product now and it says, ‘Build and maintain a healthy digestive system; restore your natural digestive balance; protect against occasional digestive upsets.' It's toned down to be more reflective hopefully of the science and the regulatory pressure.

Probiotics' organoleptics

Runestad: Do any of you consider the organoleptic qualities of probiotics?

Mike Bush: The nice thing about probiotics is the inclusion rates are so low. In our case, you're at between 10mg and 120mg per serving of a dry white powder. No flavor, no taste, no odor. It's the same with practically every other culture unless you're looking at the fermentation capacity of the organism. Most products are post-fermentation.

Scott Bush: It's a good distinction. It is one of the things we have to take into consideration. Most yogurt companies want to put the probiotic in pre-fermentation, and the advantage to that is there will be some growth. So there is some financial incentive to put it in up front, but if they're going to do it they have to worry about texture, taste, perhaps even color.

Washington-Smith: We've had a similar but almost opposite effect in the attempt to try to create an organoleptic profile in a chewable tablet or a gum. Those excipients that get used and actually can have a detrimental effect on the organism itself – either it's more hydroscopic than it should be, it's attracting more moisture, or it's even an essential oil which can have an impact on the organism. That guidance needs to be provided to the manufacturer as well. If somebody wants to use something out of spec, we'll often test stability before we go forward.

Runestad: What about the provocative idea that probiotics could counteract some of the ills of highly-processed foods?

Mike Bush: That is an area, more internationally than domestically, that we're hearing about a lot. Especially when some foreign companies are saying, ‘You have to take this inherently non-healthy product and make it more healthy.' For example, ‘We have a Ho Ho here and we want to make it healthy and we'd love to put your strain in it.' Our response is, ‘You know, is a probiotic Ho Ho the best idea?' And probiotic cigarettes may sound like nirvana, but they're not going to be a healthy delivery system. It doesn't necessarily mean you're going to offset the negative activity.

Runestad: Consumers are told on the one hand, ‘If you want to eat healthy, eat fruits and vegetables.' But what they really want is something healthy that looks like a Ho Ho. So why not deliver what the consumer wants?

Mike Bush: If you think about it, though, a Ho Ho or a highly processed food is a really tough place to put a probiotic. They're not highly processed because they're naturally made, made by hand, no they're made in a factory where it's hot and moist and they're stuck in trucks. Most of the time the unhealthy products also go through an unhealthy delivery system.

Salmen: I see a huge disconnect between delivery vehicles like this and probiotics. They're not anywhere close to a fermented product.

Scott Bush: It seems to be a niche. We see probiotics in chocolate; we've got some probiotic beers; we've got some probiotic ice cream that we sell, too. Consumers don't make that connection. It's probiotics in pills, in dairy or dairy-like products – to me, that's where the big market is.

What's next in probiotics?

Fruit/vegetable juice:

  • ProViva, Sweden
  • GoodBelly, Next Foods, U.S.
  • Gefilus, Valio, Finland
  • Naked Juice Probiotic, PepsiCo, U.S.

Gum, mints, chews:

  • BioGaia, Sweden
  • ActiMint Probiotic Mints, UK
  • EvoraPlus, Oragenics, U.S.
  • Breath Biotics, Relief-Mart, U.S.

Milk formula:

  • Nidina and NAN Pro, Nestle
  • Nutramigen Lipil with Enflora LGG, Mead Johnson Nutrition, U.S.
  • HiPP Semolina Pudding Probiotic, Hipp, Germany
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