Despite ongoing interest in functional foods, probiotics—the ingredients that pioneered the functional food boom in the 1980s—now appear to have a much lower profile. According to Innova Market Insights data, less than 1% of global food and drinks launched in the 12 months ending in April 2018 were marketed as containing probiotics. (In the U.S., this figure was slightly higher, at nearly 2%.)
Dairy is the key application area globally. Just over 40% of launches featuring probiotics are in the dairy category, ahead of baby and toddler products at 24%, pet foods at 11%, and soft drinks at just over 10%. In the U.S., the picture is slightly different and more diverse, with dairy accounting for just under 36% of new probiotic launch activity, followed by pet foods at 22% and soft drinks at 18%.
Regulatory issues in some countries, such as uncertainty as to whether probiotic claims are allowed, have resulted in repositioning of many probiotic products away from probiotic claims, particularly in the dairy category. However, the recent rise in interest in fermentation in food and drink processing has brought a new lease of life to some areas of the market.
Yogurt is possibly the best-known fermented food and had already moved into public awareness with the rise of probiotic yogurt in the mid-1980s. Greater focus was paid to yogurt’s health benefits, particularly with regards to digestive and immune health. In the 12 months ending April 2018, 22.5% of U.S. yogurt launches used a probiotic platform, and over 60% of the much smaller drinking yogurt/fermented beverages sub-category did the same.
In the U.S., Danone’s Activia pioneered the mainstream market for probiotic yogurt in the mid-2000s and despite concerns over claims continues to focus on probiotic benefits. Their range has expanded to encompass fruit, fruit-on-the-bottom, light, Greek, fiber, and lactose-free varieties, as well as a number of dairy drinks, all with a focus on digestive health. A recent launch in 2018 was Activia Probiotic Dailies, a dose-delivery format in line with sister brand DanActive’s DanActive Dailies, marketed on an immune support platform.
The Rise of Kefir
A revamp and repositioning of other related spoonable and drinkable cultured dairy options followed, including crème fraiche, smetana, skyr, ayran, lassi, and kefir. Kefir has been one of the key growth areas in fermented beverages in recent years. It originated in the Caucasus Mountains and was consumed most commonly in Eastern Europe, Southwest Asia, and Russia.
The U.S. pioneered the kefir market in the west and brought value-added options in resealable plastic bottles to the mainstream market, allowing more direct competition with other dairy and non-dairy beverages. Kefir is strongly promoted on its health benefits, and all U.S. launches recorded by Innova Market Insights in the 12 months ending April 2018 used some kind of health positioning. The kefir market’s initial emphasis was its probiotic claims, but there is now also rising activity in low-fat and reduced-sugar claims, while organic and lactose-free varieties are also increasingly common.
While health remains a key focus, kefir launches have also taken on a wider range of other on-trend themes, including more exotic flavors, regional recipes, and even non-dairy options.
Lifeway Foods was a key kefir pioneer in the U.S., and it now has a wide range of kefir products, including organic and non-organic options, protein varieties, Greek-style formulations, and probiotic shots. Recent additions include a Kefir Cup spoonable product in Strawberry Rosehip and Granola varieties, as well as a Plantiful Plant-Based Probiotic Drink range in Vanilla, Mango, Reishi Chocolate, and Maca Coconut varieties.
Kombucha Gains Ground
Key probiotic categories outside of the dairy category include sauces and seasonings, bakery and beverages, pickled products (such as natural sauerkraut and kimchi), sourdough bread, and kombucha drinks.
Kombucha, the ancient, fermented, lightly effervescent black or green tea drinks from China, traditionally contained multiple species of yeast and bacteria, along with organic acids, active enzymes, amino acids, and polyphenols produced by these microbes. These drinks have been available in other countries outside of Asia for some years; however, with rising interest in functional beverages and fermented products, they have moved out of the specialty sector into the mainstream.
A review of recent product activity in the U.S. indicates the increasing range of flavors and ingredients used as the kombucha market has developed. The 2018 introductions include Better Booch Morning Glory and Golden Pear premium kombucha teas in cans, and Bambucha Chef Crafted Kombuchas in a range of exotic flavors, including Orange Blossom, Thai Ginger, Blueberry Tart, Hibiscus Rose, and Mango Masala.
Nearly 95% of global launches are positioned on a health platform, with clean labeling and digestive health key areas of interest. Over 85% of launches carry a clean-label positioning of some kind (natural, organic, no additives/preservatives, GMO-free), while digestive health and/or probiotic claims featured on 65% of introductions.
There is clearly still interest in the use of probiotic cultures for health, primarily for yogurts and fermented beverages, as well as in supplements. With a wider focus on fermentation, which is seen as a natural and authentic process, new product development and heightened consumer awareness are combining to bring a raft of more traditional products back to the fore.
The market for probiotic foods and drinks has struggled in some parts of the world, particularly Europe and North America, with health claim regulation issues. The fermented foods route could present a new way forward for this type of product, particularly when the natural and authentic image of fermentation as a traditional food processing method can also be used to a brand’s advantage.
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