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Yogurt-makers yearn for a ‘bacteria bonanza’

Dairy manufacturers are hoping for a windfall from "probiotics," the healthy bacteria found in yogurt, reports Phil Lempert

Yogurt continues to be one of the most innovative categories in the food world.

Think back: fruit on the bottom, then on the top, then mixed in. Then came flavor combinations, followed by packaging innovations and yogurt designed for kids to eat on the go. Most recently, yogurt-based drinks in both family-size and single-serve has captured nearly $400 million in 2004 sales. The total yogurt category, according to ACNielsen, reached the all time high of $2.87 billion last year in sales.

But now the attention is shifting away from the flavors and packaging of yogurts to … bacteria.

Don’t worry, this isn’t the kind of bacteria we use antibiotics to fight. Rather, it’s the good, healthy kind, actually known as probiotics.

Probiotics are bacteria which, when administered in adequate amounts in the form of a food source or dietary supplement (tablets, capsules, powders or liquids), are believed to confer a health benefit on the host. Derived from fermented dairy products such as yogurt, probiotics usually contain bacteria from the genera Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium.

Studies conducted by the California Dairy Research Foundation and other researchers indicates that some possible probiotic benefits include preventing intestinal diseases, minimizing the symptoms of lactose intolerance and improving immune function. More preliminary studies suggest that probiotics may also reduce the incidence of colon tumors, decrease hypertension and ameliorate allergic reactions.

To help consumers identify which products contain probiotics, the National Yogurt Association (NYA) has established the Live and Active Cultures (LAC) seal. This seal, which appears on refrigerated and frozen yogurt containers, is a voluntary identification. Companies opting to use the seal can only do so on products that contain at least 100 million bacterial cultures per gram. However, since the program is voluntary, some products may contain this amount of active cultures but chose not to carry the seal. Products that are labeled “heat-treated” after fermentation will not contain significant active culture levels, and hence, will not be labeled. Furthermore, the LAC seal does not necessarily indicate high levels of probiotics (only that some are present), unless otherwise noted. Currently, there are no FDA-approved health claims for probiotics, but the agency does allow the LAC seal to appear on appropriate products.

Still, the exploding research and consumer interest surrounding probiotics has fueled an entire new category. One of the most popular probiotic foods on the market is DanActive, manufactured by yogurt-maker Dannon. A fermented milk labeled with 10 billion L.casei cultures per serving, DanActive was originally launched in Belgium in 1994 under the name Actimel, or “active milk.” Available in 26 countries worldwide, more than 6 million bottles are consumed every day. DanActive products are clearly labeled with both the LAC seal and the term “Probiotic.” Also on the cutting edge of probiotic products is Stonyfield Farms, whose yogurts contain four probiotic strains in addition to standard yogurt starter cultures (whereas other major brands add only one or two additional strains). Other well-known probiotic manufacturers include Lifeway Foods, the largest U.S. seller of kefir (a fermented milk beverage), and Horizon Organic Dairy.

Manufacturers believe labeling is key to creating a “bacteria bonanza” for these products. As the term “probiotics” becomes more common, they think consumers will seek out items that clearly indicate possible health benefits, probiotic claims and/or the LAC seal. Meanwhile, the NYA is petitioning the FDA for a “yogurt standard,” so that only those yogurts containing a minimum level of LACs can be labeled as being yogurts.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent