Dairy products featured the highest number of digestive-health claims, ahead of baby food and pet food; together, these three categories accounted for over 80% of total global digestive-health launches. Specifically within the dairy sector, digestive-health launches accounted for nearly 16% of total introductions, with yogurt and yogurt drinks accounting for 90% of those.
Although relatively slow to take off in the United States, probiotic yogurts led the functional foods boom in Europe in the 1980s. These early products primarily used Bifidus cultures, but as the market developed, it grew increasingly sophisticated with the use of different and more specialized, often branded, cultures and blends.
A totally new type of product followed this—dose-delivery active-health drinks—containing a range of single and blended probiotic cultures. But despite high penetration levels in parts of Asia, active-health drinks containing probiotics did not even appear on the European market until the 1990s and still haven’t made any significant impression on the potentially huge U.S. market.
The European digestive-health market is now considerably complicated by the ongoing refusal of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to approve probiotic health claims, despite extensive scientific dossiers presented by a number of major multinationals and the approval of probiotic claims in some other non-EU European countries, such as Switzerland.
While EFSA’s position on probiotics remains unresolved, there has been a general move in the European market toward a more general health and fitness positioning and a move away from specific claims related to digestive health in many instances.
Danone’s Activia yogurt, which was key to the development of the probiotic yogurt market in Europe, has moved away from overt claims, for example. The company has instead used its mainstream market positioning and its ongoing program of product and promotional activity to continue its global growth. It has taken steps to soften its digestive-health claims positioning and moved to a more general “feel good from within” positioning. Activia’s new-product activity includes lactose-free versions in markets such as Scandinavia and Germany, breakfast varieties with fruit juice in Spain, the Activia Pur line with just three ingredients (Activia natural yogurt, fruit, and raw sugar) in Germany, and Greek-style yogurts and dessert-style flavors in the UK.
In the United States, rising interest in Greek and Greek-style yogurts has also tended to take the product emphasis away from digestive health and probiotics and instead toward nutrient content, especially Greek yogurt’s high protein.
While probiotic yogurts are marketed on taste, indulgence, and a more general health positioning—allowing considerable opportunity for ongoing new-product development—the probiotic or active-health drinks market has more limited options in terms of maintaining consumer interest.
Sales of yogurt drinks in the UK, for example, saw a double-digit volume decline in 2013. The leading brand, Danone’s Actimel, was repositioned in October 2013 as Actimel Plus, with the product’s vitamin-based health claim that relegated its once high-profile Lactobacillus casei probiotic culture to a passing mention on the package.
Yakult, another pioneer of the European probiotic drinks market, responded to difficulties over probiotic claims with the introduction of a new Yakult Plus variant featuring added fiber, 70% less sugar, and a new flavor.
While Yakult’s European operation faces challenging times, the brand saw a major step forward in the United States in the spring of 2014 when domestic production began in California. (Yakult began selling its products in the U.S. market in 1990, but until recently, its U.S. products were sourced from a manufacturing plant in Mexico.) The company is also opening additional production facilities in China and Indonesia to cater to increasing demand.
While the developed economies, particularly Europe, are currently experiencing difficulties, elsewhere in the world there is still a generally upward trend and high level of interest in products with digestive-health benefits—dairy products, in particular. Consumers worldwide are already familiar with digestive-health products, perhaps making actual claims less important.
Still, many brands are downplaying digestive-health benefits and focusing instead on general health and wellness or offering a range of health benefits, such as fat and calorie reduction or nutrient fortification, as well as other benefits such as naturalness, purity, and—maybe most significantly—taste and indulgence.
Editor's note: Perhaps there is no greater indication of the health claims struggles digestive health products like probiotics face than the recent and ongoing case of Bayer versus the FTC.
Pictured: Yakult, a pioneer of the probiotic drink, launched a new variety, Yakult Light, in the U.S. in 2012. Sweetened with the steviol glycoside Rebaudioside A, the drink contains 30 calories and 4 g of sugar per bottle. Compare this to the regular Yakult drink, which contains 50 calories per bottle and 11 g of sugar (sucrose).