The fastest way to consumers’ hearts may be through their troubled stomachs.
In the year since the Dannon Company introduced Activia, a line of yogurt with special live bacteria that are marketed as aiding regularity, sales in United States stores have soared well past the $100 million mark, a milestone that only a small percentage of new foods reaches each year.
Now other food makers, eyeing Activia’s success, are scrambling to offer their own products with special live microbes that offer health benefits, known as probiotics.
Probiotic foods have been popular in Europe and Asia for decades; in fact, Activia has been sold overseas since 1987. But there are challenges in replicating that success in the United States, including an American public that eats far less yogurt than Europeans and a culture that has traditionally relied on pills, rather than food and natural remedies, to remain healthy.
Still, given Activia’s popularity and the growing public demand for natural products in the United States, some experts say that probiotics have the potential to be this decade’s oat bran, which became a food sensation in the 1980s after it was shown to lower cholesterol levels.
“I know marketers will start looking to put it on everything,” said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm. But probiotic foods will sell only if they taste good and consumers believe they are credible, he said.
There is broad agreement that probiotics may help improve health, plus a growing body of research linking them to relief of irritable bowel syndrome, yeast infections, and diarrhea that results from certain illnesses. But so far there is no definitive proof for some extravagant claims. Already, manufacturers have suggested that probiotics may help ward off everything from allergies to colon cancer.
The Food and Drug Administration takes a neutral position, policing food packages to make sure that companies do not try to equate probiotic products with disease-curing drugs (unless they have scientific evidence to back up a claim). One scholarly group that has addressed the topic recently, the American Academy of Microbiology, said in a 2006 report that “at present, the quality of probiotics available to consumers in food products around the world is unreliable.”
The oat bran craze fizzled in part because its health benefits were overstated, and some nutrition and medical experts say the situation may be the same with probiotics. Detractors say that a lot of fuzzy claims are being made, and it is sometimes unclear how much of a food a person would have to eat — or how often they would have to eat it — to obtain any benefits.
But the doubts do not seem to have toned down the marketing for probiotics.
“They are gaining a reputation as being good for you in some way, and there is an element of truth in that,” said David Schardt, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group. “But it is a very narrow element of truth, in certain very specific diseases where it’s been proven to be helpful.”
Probiotics in food are part of a larger trend toward “functional foods,” which stress their ability to deliver benefits that have traditionally been the realm of medicine or dietary supplements. Whether or not their claims are to be believed, some food companies say that their orange juice with omega 3 fatty acids is good for the heart, that their green tea drinks can burn calories and that their granola bars with plant sterols can lower cholesterol.
Nutritionists scoff at some of these claims, and not all foods marketed as functional have been hits. The ones that come across to consumers as less natural, such as fortified soft drinks, have not sold as well as those that seem inherently healthy, like yogurt and orange juice. For Activia — which Dannon recommends eating daily in order to derive health benefits — it didn’t hurt that yogurt sales have been soaring and that millions of Americans complain of stomach problems.
“Activia is unique,” said Michelle Barry, senior vice president for consumer insights and trends at the Hartman Group, a market research firm. “They are kind of the poster child of great success in this category of functional foods.”
So far, most probiotic products can be found in the dairy case or as dietary supplements. TCBY sells a probiotic frozen yogurt, and Stonyfield Farm is introducing a dairy-based energy drink called Shift with probiotics. Both Dannon and Stonyfield Farm are owned by the Group Danone, a French company.
But there is also a trickle of non-dairy probiotic food, including a cereal called Kashi Vive and “wellness bars” from a company called Attune Foods.
At the Whole Foods store in Union Square in Manhattan, there are several shelves of probiotic dairy products, including DanActive, a new offering from Dannon, as well as Wildwood Soyogurt Smoothie and Probugs Organic Whole Milk Kefir, from Lifeway Foods.
Susan Kramer, a 50-year-old mother who was shopping at the store recently, said she regularly bought DanActive. “I assume it has more probiotics than regular yogurt,” she said. “It just makes me feel good to drink it, and my kids like it.”
Probiotics include bacteria that is used to ferment food, whether it is yogurt, cheese or pickles. While there are thousands of different probiotics, only a handful have been tested in clinical trials and been shown to deliver specific health benefits when eaten regularly. Critics say that some food products do not say which bacterial strains they contain nor how much of the ingredient is in each package.
The growth of probiotics in food comes as some scientists are focused on the role of beneficial bacteria in people’s intestinal tracts in aiding digestion, boosting the body’s natural defenses and fighting off harmful bacteria that could cause health problems.
Gary B. Huffnagle, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan and a strong proponent of probiotics, says there is independent research that shows that probiotics help with some bowel problems, plus strong but not conclusive evidence that probiotics help alleviate yeast infections and the stomach woes often associated with taking antibiotics.
But Professor Huffnagle, who said he had no financial ties to companies that sell probiotic products, said there simply was not enough research to support claims that probiotics could ward off cancer, allergies, high blood pressure and other diseases.
“It’s early in terms of the research,” he said.
Mr. Schardt, the nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the claims of many probiotic foods and supplements were not backed by scientific research.
For instance, Kashi Vive cereal promises to “care for your digestive system and enhance your joie de vivre,” but there is no published research that shows that the probiotic strain in Vive has any health benefits, he said. Kashi, which is owned by the Kellogg Company, declined to comment other than to say the strain it uses in Kashi Vive is proprietary.
Similarly, Mr. Schardt said that a study supporting DanActive’s claim for strengthening the body’s defenses showed that it did not prevent colds or infections, though it did reduce the duration of colds by a day and a half. Dannon officials said that Mr. Schardt’s analysis was full of errors and that other studies showed that DanActive strengthens the body’s defenses.
As for Activia, the company does not claim that it reduces the risk of specific medical conditions like constipation. Rather, Dannon says, it “can help regulate your digestive system by helping reduce long intestinal transit time.”
The success of Group Danone’s probiotic products has helped boost its stock by more than 50 percent over the last year. Mark Lynch, an analyst with Goldman Sachs in London, said that Danone’s growth in dairy had been due mostly to growth in new markets combined with the introduction of innovative products in existing markets.
Besides Activia and Actimel (the European equivalent of DanActive), Danone has introduced a yogurt called Danacol in Europe that contains plant sterols that the company says lower cholesterol. Another Danone yogurt is on the way that claims to improve skin quality.
As word circulates among consumers about probiotics, not all shoppers are sold. At a Giant Eagle grocery store in Cleveland, Amanda Ross, a 31-year-old grant writer, said she had tried Kashi Vive and concluded that it tasted like cardboard.
“It didn’t make my mouth feel good,” she said. “And I’m a big granola and cereal person.”
As for Activia, Ms. Ross said she had bought it on sale and liked the taste, but did not notice any digestive changes. “When it went up to its regular price, I didn’t buy any more,” she said.