Life in the culture club

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The EU's impending regulation on health claims is failing to stifle the growth of the dairy culture industry. Michelle Knott reports

With the health and wellness megatrend driving growth in probiotics and other health-promoting dairy cultures, the EU's impending Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation is a mixed blessing for the industry. The major players are already working to get their health claims onto the approved list under Article 13 of the legislation. But some of their more cautious dairy customers are delaying the development of new products until they know for sure what they will and will not be able to claim after the regulation comes into force at the end of next year.

The result is something of a hiatus, according to Kris Ferguson, product manager in DSM's cultures division. "Customers are reluctant to move into new areas until the new legislation is introduced. However, when this is in place, manufacturers will be able to use justified claims to strengthen their brands."

The legislation will also help to boost consumer confidence that any health claims are fully justified, according to Patrick Veau, vice president of the dairy and food cultures business unit at Danisco: "The new regulation will 'clean' the market. There will be fewer products, but any claims will be based on scientifically and clinically proven evidence."

This will obviously favour the big players, who will be able to support more research. "The suppliers of probiotics without Article 13 approval will disappear," says Veau. "Today there might be 20 or 50 probiotic strains on the market, but that will fall to five or 10 strains that have very strong scientific research behind them."

Consolidation is also a feature of the dairy market, with acquisitions, mergers and joint ventures pushing major dairy companies into the international arena.

But all this indicates a changing market, rather than a growing one. It's hard to track down figures for the overall value of dairy cultures in Europe, but individual firms estimate it at between Euro 100M and Euro 150M. There's broad agreement that growth in Western Europe is pretty stagnant, with a rise in spending power making things slightly more buoyant in the East. In the EU as a whole, companies estimate overall growth in dairy cultures of 2-4%, most of which is driven by fermented milk products (yoghurt and yoghurt drinks) and functional foods, rather than cheese.

This is doing little to stifle innovation and investment, however, because almost all the important markets beyond the EU's borders are growing rapidly. According to Veau, this is driving developments in terms of both capacity and technology: "Biotechnology is developing fast. If we want to stay a leader we have to invest."

As for consumers, preferences are changing, with people looking for milder tastes. They also want lower-fat products that maintain the consistency and mouth feel of higher-fat counterparts. And health-conscious consumers are looking beyond plain low-fat options to functional foods that can do everything from improving digestion to protecting them from colds.

For example, Chr Hansen has just announced the addition of two new ripening blends for low-fat cheese, while DSM has developed a culture (CY-364) that works in tandem with its Maxilact enzyme to produce easily digested, low-lactose yoghurts with no off-flavours. Furthermore, some of the recent developments have taken the functionality claimed for cultures in entirely new directions. For example, a clinical trial in China showed that Danisco's HOWARU Protect probiotic cultures can reduce the number of sick days from coughs and colds in children under five, as well as halving the number of antibiotic prescriptions.

So where do all these new cultures come from? Most are new blends of old strains, although all the major players are also on a constant hunt for new ones. "Innovation comes mainly from formulation," says Veau. "Some strains may have been in our collection for 20 years, it's how we use them that's important."

What's changed recently is that improved screening of candidate organisms is making it possible to tailor the functionality of cultures far more deliberately than previously. "We may be working with the same collection but we can screen much better than we could just two years ago," says Veau. Screening techniques extend to the genetic level, although he stresses that no genetic manipulation is involved.

For dairy manufacturers, improved phage resistance is a priority. Phages are viruses that can destroy entire batches by killing off the bacteria that are supposed to turn the milk into yoghurt or cheese. Worse still, it's usually impossible to guarantee that a dairy will be entirely phage-free after an attack, so alternative cultures with different phage resistance characteristics must be rotated to maintain production. Some dairies rotate up to ten different cultures to control the threat from phage attacks, and each one must produce identical product characteristics in terms of taste and texture.

Although all the culture manufacturers are making progress in increasing phage resistance, Danisco believes it may be on the way to eliminating the need for culture rotation entirely, thanks to research reported in Science​ last year. The company has identified how sequences of DNA within the genome of bacteria help them resist phage attacks. "We're having promising results and expect to go commercial in one or two years," says Veau.

In the meantime, better phage resistance is also one of the benefits of a general shift in culture delivery systems away from bulk set delivery (in which the dairy brews up a starter culture before adding it to the main batch) to direct vat inoculation (DVI), or direct vat set (DVS) (in which the organisms supplied are added directly to the main batch). Phages typically attack as bacteria are growing and dividing, so bulk set starter cultures can be vulnerable.

"Chr Hansen only supplies cultures for DVS because it gives convenience, flexibility, robustness and a more consistent performance," says Bejder. "DVS means that the dairy in effect outsources some of the work to us. We're the specialists and maintain tighter quality control. Dairies are moving to DVS strongly in fermented milk products as well as in cheese."

DSM and Danisco each provide both systems, although Danisco says it is no longer investing in developing bulk set solutions. It estimates that nearly 90% of European fermented milk products and 50% of cheeses are already using DVI/DVS cultures. Even so, DSM believes bulk set has a future, because it can be an economical alternative in the long term for bigger production operations. "DSM supports both systems as there is a definite need for both," says Ferguson. "The suitability of the system is largely determined by the size of the manufacturer and the scale and nature of the operation."

Food protection is the other area where dairies look set to benefit from innovative cultures. The right cultures can increase shelf-life and prevent contamination. "We have solutions that can prevent the growth of mould or yeast in dairy products," says Veau. These solutions reduce the need for alternative preservation measures, such as biocides in packaging, helping manufacturers clean up their labels.

While the market for dairy cultures in the EU may be sluggish, development efforts aren't. The big players know they must keep innovating to maintain their position. "Dairy cultures is clearly a niche business so the market is not enormous, but it is very interesting," says Bejder.

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