Category Report: Yogurt in all its forms

A bright spot in the dairy category, yogurt meshes with several eating trends

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By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

Yogurt has been enjoyed for centuries in the Middle East, but it didn’t debut in the U.S. until 1929, when Armenian immigrants Rose and Sarkis Colombosian and their sons hand-filled the family recipe into 8-oz. glass jars and distributed them via horse-drawn wagon throughout the Northeast.

A few years before the Colombosian family was preparing yogurt on a wood-burning stove, Eli Metchnikoff, a Nobel prize-winning biologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, reported that Lactobacilli might counteract the putrefactive effects of gastrointestinal metabolism … or, in simple terms, enhance lactose digestion.

His research spurred interest in Europe in the probiotic effects of fermented dairy products, and specifically the lactic acid bacteria responsible for fermentation. That led to many new probiotics-based products, many of them in the yogurt category.

Our bodies carry about 100 trillion bacteria, mostly in the colon and most of them not harmful. They live and grow there and help prime our immune system to better fight infection. Some bacteria, of course, are harmful and can cause infections, even disease. Consuming probiotics (products that contain live active bacteria cultures) is one approach to dealing with these negative activities of bacteria that live in our gastrointestinal tract.

Probiotic literally means “for life.” Perhaps the best way to think of them is as live, microbial cultures consumed or applied for a health benefit. Most probiotic products contain the bacteria from the genera Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. These probiotic cultures added to food strengthen the body’s defense against harmful bacteria and aid lactose digestion.

"Europeans consume probiotics regularly," says Joseph O’Donnell, executive director
of California Dairy Research Foundation, Davis, Calif., "but Americans were slow to get on the bandwagon."

Today, yogurt comes in many forms — spoonable, drinkable, textured (whole fruit, etc.) and in a variety of sizes. There also are reclosable containers — "a great convenience factor." O'Donnell says. "Americans looking for a healthy alternative for lunch or a snack can get a variety of flavors as well, including coffee, which is very popular right now on the West Coast."

In the past three years alone, the yogurt category has grown 31 percent. In the 52 weeks ending March 27, the yogurt category grew to $2.7 billion (excluding Wal-Mart), according to New York City-based ACNielsen. A recent survey by Colombo Yogurt — yes, that’s how the Colombosians’ name got commercialized, and the company is now owned by Minneapolis-based General Mills — found that 72 percent of respondents said they purchased yogurt in 2003.

A faster growing sub-category is drinkable yogurt. Nielsen says sales of this category rose an impressive 36.6 percent to $132.8 million.

Valerie Skala, a food product analyst at Chicago-based Information Resources Inc., says the innovation and convenience of drinkable yogurts in shapely bottles is one of the reasons for category growth. “Because you don’t need a spoon, people are having it at times when they wouldn’t have had yogurt before,” she says.

Hitting several trends

Yogurt fits the major trends today — convenience, weight-control/low-carb, wellness and indulgence.

In the last quarter of 2003, Mountain High Yoghurt, an Englewood, Colo., division of Dean Foods, introduced Naturally Nutritious Yoghurt, a 99.5 percent fat-free yogurt that includes NutraFlora, a dietary fiber that has been shown to promote a healthy digestive system. The dietary fiber ingredient assists in the absorption of calcium, strengthens the immune system, fights infection, increases metabolic energy, aids digestion and promotes regularity. Varieties include Peach Mango, Strawberry Banana and Strawberry and Vanilla.
American consumers are catching up to their European counterparts in understanding the health benefits from the cultures in yogurt.

Also notable is Dannon’s expanded distribution in the U.S. of Actimel, a probiotic dairy-based dietary supplement drink made with 10 times more Lactobacillus casei cultures than yogurt and popular in Europe. Its patented L.casei imunitass bacteria resist digestion better than normal L. casei, delivering more of the beneficial bacteria to the intestines.

Fortunately, Actimel is not being marketed as a product for “gut health,” even though it squarely is. Americans tend to be queasy about that part of the anatomy, preferring to identify with more pleasant topics and images. So yogurt marketers are pitching indulgence and sexiness (Dannon La Crème), active kids (Yoplait’s Go-Gurt), healthy, working women (Yoplait’s Nouriche) or organic (anything from Stonyfield Farm). Londonderry, N.H.-based Stonyfield, by the way, recently added Vanilla and Tropical Banana to its line of yogurt-based smoothies.

Speaking of smoothies, Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill., used that medium earlier this year to marry two of its brands. Breyers Crème Savers Smoothies are drinkable yogurt in flavors reminiscent of the Nabisco candy: Strawberry & Crème, Orange & Crème and Peaches & Crème.

Attention is being paid to carbohydrates. Yoplait, also owned by General Mills, trumpets 8 grams of carbs per cup in its new Yoplait Ultra. That’s 70 percent less carbs and sugar than regular low-fat yogurt. Varieties include Strawberry Crème, Peach Crème, Blueberry Crème and Raspberry Crème.

Tarrytown, N.Y.-based Dannon, the No. 2 brand after Yoplait, offers several new
yogurt products. Targeted to pre-teens, Danimals XL comes in Strawberry Explosion, Blazin’ Berry, Orange Strawberry Banana and Watermelon Slice flavors. Only 3 grams of carbohydrates are in Light ’n Fit Carb Control in four flavors: Strawberries ’n Cream, Peaches ’n Cream, Raspberries ’n Cream and Vanilla Cream. Frusion smoothies, an indulgent and drinkable choice, are available in Banana Berry Blend, Wild Berry Blend, Peach Passion Fruit Blend, Tropical Fruit Blend, Cherry Berry Blend and Strawberry Kiwi Blend.

Packing a healthy punch

With convenience, flavor and taste all on the rise, yogurt may be moving full circle back to its healthful roots as the driver of category growth.

A body of current research links dairy consumption, including yogurt, with weight control. “Yogurt has everything in it that’s in milk — it’s just been fermented by adding cultures and heating,” says O’Donnell. "And some of these friendly cultures, or bugs, have additional health benefits."

Yogurt contains more lactose than milk, he says, but the bacteria break down the enzymes, so lactose-intolerant people have no problem with it.

Health benefits can result from the fermentation. “Fermentation by select probiotic cultures decreases the risk of colon cancer and increases immunity,” O"Donnell adds.

"Flavor, texture, taste, convenience, no lactose, potential health benefits and weight control,” lists O’Donnell. “Quite a bundle in one natural package.”

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