Anyone searching for a ray of economic sunshine amid the current gloom could do a lot worse than looking at the market for probiotics - hatchet jobs from the UK's Guardian newspaper notwithstanding. According to Chr Hansen, probiotics in food are bucking the wider trend by showing global growth of 7-9%, while supplements are enjoying the kind of growth (10-15%) that other products can only dream of in today's straitened times - even if some elements of the media have started to question their efficacy.
"The mature markets of Asia Pacific and Western Europe are slower, while South America, Eastern Europe and the US are growing faster," says Sarita Bairoliya, global marketing manager for probiotics in Chr Hansen's cultures and enzymes division. "The rate in food is less than it has been but it's still experiencing growth. It's largely down to growing awareness among consumers."
According to Euromonitor, consumers around the world munched their way through 40,000t of probiotics in 2008, more than 10,000t of which were in Europe. And in a recent report on consumer attitudes to health during the downturn, Euromonitor found that consumers see functional foods as an investment that will reduce the risk of having to resort to expensive treatment in future: "This is part of the approach to health that is increasingly moving from treatment to prevention."
With this in mind, consumers are increasingly looking for functional foods that go beyond being simply "good for you" to promise a growing array of specific health advantages, from improved digestion to the alleviation of bleeding gums. So, for example, Chr Hansen's BB-12 strain targets gut health, while its CRL-431 strain stimulates the immune system. Meanwhile, Institut Rosell-Lallemand recently announced the results of clinical trials revealing that its synbiotic (combines pre- and probiotics) ProbioKid could reduce the incidence of common infections in children during the winter.
Getting the marketing right
However, not all strategies for delivering and marketing the benefits of probiotics have proved entirely successful. Generally, it's the products aimed at 'wellness', such as improved digestion, that have been the big hitters, whereas those that are about preventing 'disease and death', such as cholesterol-lowering and heart health strains, have proved less popular.
The perception of probiotics in certain types of food has also proved to be problematic. "You can't put probiotics into everything," says Bairoliya. For example, the biggest disappointment from the launch of Kraft's LiveActive range - which received a lukewarm response from American consumers - was probiotic cheese. Analysts explained it by suggesting that consumers view cheese as an indulgent product, which is high in fat. Why would they turn to cheese for a health benefit when probiotics are also available in yogurts, which are perceived as much healthier?
Even so, there is a lot of interest in opening the market up beyond fermented milk-based delivery systems into a wider variety of products. The big difficulty here is shelf-life, especially in soft drinks and juices, but companies are coming up with some ingenious ways around the problem.
"It's difficult to keep bacteria alive inside a drink, so we keep them outside till the time of consumption. It opens up a much bigger market for probiotics," says Peter Rothschild, md of BioGaia. BioGaia offers two patented formats to get around the issue - probiotic straws and a special bottle cap that releases ingredients into the product immediately before consumption.
"Our straw has an oil drop coating inside that holds the probiotic. It's a pretty simple idea but not so simple to do," says Rothschild. The straw technology has been around for almost five years, but its big breakthrough came last year, when Nestlé adopted the Lactobacillus reuteri straws in the US for its immunity-supporting Boost Kid Essentials children's drinks. In another recent deal, BioGaia has agreed to sell the straws to a major dairy in China, this time containing a different bacterial strain.
In a similar vein, last year also saw Danisco sign up with Australian company Unistraw to use the company's alternative, patented straw technology to deliver Danisco's Howaru probiotics. And in a parallel agreement, Unistraw teamed up with TetraPak to combine the straw with long-life packaging.
Meanwhile, BioGaia's LifeTop cap technology is sold through subsidiary company CapAble. The cap has a small blister inside and a dome on top.
When the consumer presses the dome, the blister breaks and the contents fall into the drink. Companies in Mexico and the US have signed deals to use the cap complete with BioGaia cultures, and the technology has also been licensed to the French company LeSaffre Human Care, to use with its yeast-based probiotic culture, Lynside PRO SCB.
LeSaffre is one of a few companies offering yeast-based probiotics, along with Institut Rosell-Lallemand, which bases its yeast cultures on a strain called Saccharomyces cerevisiae var. boulardii, which is claimed to inhibit pathogens and certain bacterial toxins in the gut lumen and is recommended for the prevention of traveller's diarrhoea.
"All live yeast cannot be considered as probiotics," says Benoit Laplaize, sales and marketing manager for LeSaffre. "To be eligible for this designation, the strain must survive gastric acid and bile salts, be viable and stable in the host and confer a proven health benefit."
He says that there are several practical advantages to using yeast in place of bacteria. Chief among these is that yeast is not sensitive to antibiotics and, because there is no chance of genes transferring between the yeast and bacteria in the gut, it will not promote antibiotic resistance.
And when it comes to toughing it out in the gut, Laplaize says that yeast is extremely robust: "Yeast does not need encapsulation to get a very good rate of survival in the gut, whereas most bacteria need encapsulation technologies." In addition, using yeast can provide marketing advantages: "We did a study that found that people don't relate to bacteria in the same way as yeast, so there's also a 'mental' difference."
Probably the biggest issue affecting the marketing of probiotics across Europe in the near future is the EU Nutrition and Health Claims legislation. The big problem is that at the time of writing, no probiotics claims had yet been approved by EFSA, even though the applicants say they have the science behind them.
This early negative feedback has even led to the temporary withdrawal of applications by some very high-profile players, including Danone and BioGaia, while they wait for more guidance." At the moment we have withdrawn our claims because it was such an unclear situation," says Rothschild. "Now EFSA has clarified a little bit we will try to do it again."
Others, such as LeSaffre and Chr Hansen, have opted instead to wait and see. "We are keeping our applications in and are following the situation closely," says Bairoliya. "There has been a lot of frustration about the lack of clarity."
However, she says that the legislation will be a good thing once the difficult transition phase is over, because it will inspire trust among consumers. Another consequence of the legislation is likely to be extra overdosing to compensate for the fact that many organisms are likely to be killed off before they manage to reach their target.
Cell Biotech Europe - a Danish-Korean joint venture - is hoping that its dual coating technology can persuade manufacturers to take a different approach. "You need bacteria in sufficient numbers to reach the lower intestine. That's why a lot of people insist on taking huge numbers of bacteria. At pH 2.0 Duolac gets a survival rate of around 80%, whereas it can be as low as 20% for some uncoated strains," says the firm's UK representative, Bruce Phillips.
The patented Duolac coating comprises two layers. The outer, carbohydrate-based layer protects against production stresses, while the inner, protein-based layer protects bacteria as they pass through the gut. This is possible because the inner coating will not dissolve at the very low pH experienced in the upper digestive system.
"Our tests show that Duolac will allow more bacteria to end up in the right places. We have formidable competitors who say that their strains are acid-tolerant, but our tests show there is a considerable benefit to coating," says Phillips. FIHN