The European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA's) rejection of every single probiotic health claim dossier to date has cast a shadow over the future of the probiotics industry. Given this rather gloomy outlook, most people in Lars Bredmose's shoes would be more than a little anxious.
Yet Bredmose, who, at 40, is marketing director, probiotic cultures, in Chr Hansen's cultures and enzymes division, seems confident it will only be a matter of time before his firm sends EFSA the evidence needed to win gut and immunity claims.
"Gaining approved claims in the areas of gut health and immunity is a massive priority and we are convinced we will get them," says Bredmose.
He explains that, rather than consolidating existing science, Chr Hansen's focus is on conducting large-scale clinical trials to confirm probiotics' effects on these areas.
"Some of our old studies were large but they did not meet the rigours EFSA required in terms of the set-up and blinding. We didn't know, when the science was made years ago, what EFSA's requirements would be today."
As soon as the confirmatory trials are completed, Bredmose says that Chr Hansen will submit a dossier.
In the meantime, firms are restricted to making content claims and relying on the goodwill and awareness that has been built up through years of educating consumers about the mechanics of probiotics.
This approach, says Bredmose, is fine as a stop gap, but in the long term, if the likes of Danone aren't able to promote probiotics, consumers will eventually lose the faith.
"You have to be careful about relying on consumer memory after a certain amount of time, they will forget the messages of how and why."
He adds that, until EFSA alters its stance, even the very use of the word 'probiotic' is under threat.
"It could disappear from packaging and advertising as it could be considered a health claim."
Bredmose admits that innovation in Europe has slowed as a result. "It is stifling the number of new product launches in the probiotic category, as firms are unlikely to invest," he says.
He doesn't think this slowdown is related to market saturation, however. "We're not experiencing fatigue, more frustration on the part of brand owners at not being able to communicate with consumers," he says.
Nor does he see it as a catastrophe for Chr Hansen's probiotics business.
"Europe's a significant market and this is creating a negative backwind, but we've got very active markets in America and South East Asia in particular China, Vietnam, South Korea and Thailand so this is not a disaster for our business," he says.
Perhaps the reason Bredmose is so unruffled by the situation stems from his background. Prior to joining Chr Hansen five years ago, he spent two years with management consultancy McKinsey, which is known for its gruelling and pressurised pace.
"McKinsey was a two-year intense learning curve, where I learned to work in many different industries and realised that wherever they are people face the same problems," he says.
It probably also helps that he is a scientist, so his faith in probiotics is rooted in reason and knowledge.
His degree in molecular biology, from the University of Copenhagen, led him into several stints with Danish biotech firms. His wife's job then took them to Australia, where he did a Masters in Business Administration at the University of Adelaide.
His role at Chr Hansen enables him to reconcile his business and scientific experience to come up with a strategy for the firm's probiotic ingredients that responds to customer and consumer needs.
"Our aim is to be one step ahead, looking not just at what the industry wants, but what consumers want. We are a proactive firm providing solutions."
While a major part of this strategy is cementing the known gut health and immunity benefits of probiotics to secure an elusive health claim, another tenet is exploring new health platforms for probiotics.
New health platforms
"We still have projects going on in weight management," says Bredmose. "We're currently conducting human trials looking at how bacteria can interact with the hormones and make you feel fuller for longer."
However, he emphasises that this is still very much preliminary research, and that even if this effect is scientifically proved, it would take a long time to educate consumers to a point where products based on a weight management platform could achieve mass market sales.
He says bone health is another area that offers potential. "In order to adsorb calcium into the bones you need certain vitamins, and some of these, such as vitamin K, are in short supply in the body. Certain probiotic strains work in the product and in the gut to produce these vitamins."
Besides exploring different health areas the Danish company is also exploring new application areas, and this work has yielded a probiotic ingredient that can be used in juices historically a problem application for probiotics owing to their acidity.
"It's a strain we've used for years L.Casei 431 but we've introduced a technology that enables it to survive in juice. There's a lot of promise in that, as not all consumers want their probiotic dose as a dairy product."
Going forwards, Bredmose says the focus will continue to be on juice and dairy, which may sound dull, but is where Chr Hansen believes the mass market opportunities to be.
"We could work on getting probiotics into bread, cakes and confectionery, which would be difficult but possible. However, we don't believe consumers will accept probiotics in unhealthy matrices."
Clearly, further penetration of Europe's juice and dairy markets hinges on the health claim situation being resolved. If the unthinkable happens, and probiotic does become a taboo term, at least, with four children, Bredmose will have plenty to occupy him.