Probiotics and prebiotics might do most of their work in the rarely spoken of “gut health” arena, but recent studies have proven the ingredients have benefits beyond the intestinal tract. At the same time, consumers have become more aware ­– and more open to – the ingredients and their potential benefits. All the while, ingredient companies are extending the possible applications for probiotic and prebiotic inclusions in beverages.

“The U.S. market for probiotics is relatively young compared to the European and Asian markets,” says Anand Rao, dairy group manager for Fonterra, Rosemont, Ill. “The terminology and the health benefits of probiotics have been entering the U.S. consumers’ vocabulary only in the past few years, thanks to the marketing efforts of cultured food manufacturers. At present, U.S. consumers think largely of yogurt and yogurt-drinks when they think of probiotics. Consumers in other parts of the world are able to find probiotics added to other products, such as fruit juices, nutritional bars and breakfast cereal.”

Specific claims typically are reserved for particular strains of probiotics or proprietary formulas, but the ingredients are accepted as being effective in the digestive health area.

“The value of probiotic effects is still being studied, but there are a lot of studies implying their use for a variety of things, such as improving regularity, enhancing immune response, managing irritable bowel syndrome or colitis, absorption of minerals, such as calcium,” says Allan Buck, director of research and development for ADM, Decatur, Ill.

Once a rather uncomfortable topic, American consumers have begun to understand and to want to take care of their digestive health. The focus on health and wellness also includes prebiotic ingredients. Prebiotics, Buck explains, “are non-digestible ingredients that reach the large intestine leading to improved wellness as a result of impacting the growth or activity of specific bacteria. There is a desire to maintain a healthy and diverse bacterial population to enhance potential beneficial physiologic affects, not just necessarily promoting any one species.”

The prebiotic carbohydrates also are considered fibers, many of which are marketed as having prebiotic qualities. In collaboration with Matustani, ADM markets Fibersol-2, a digestive resistant maltodextrin fermentable by gut bacteria. Another major manufacturer of prebiotic fibers is National Starch Food Innovation, Bridgewater, N.J. The company has seen prebiotic fibers attract some attention, but like probiotics, not as much as overseas, explains Mike Klacik, senior business director of global nutrition at National Starch.

“Probiotics and digestive health is much bigger outside of the U.S.,” Klacik says. “Here, it’s still evolving. The U.S. has emphasized other markets, such as cardiovascular health, but overseas fiber is recognized as an important health issue. On our supply-side we do focus groups with Europe and Asia and we see that what’s going on in their industry is digestive health, which under that umbrella of benefits includes probiotics and fibers.”

Because of heat sensitivity inherent to the probiotic cultures, applications frequently are limited to dairy-based beverages, to which the cultures are added after pasteurization and remain viable during refrigeration. Recently, probiotics and prebiotics have been added to juice drinks due to the production similarities with dairy-based beverages. Advancements in prebiotics also have created new avenues for the inclusion of the ingredient in powdered beverages and, even in clear beverages.

Including the ingredients in a beverage allows for multiple occasions throughout the day to incorporate probiotics and prebiotics into the diet, Klacik says.

“From the prebiotic standpoint, the opportunity for fibers, especially in beverages, is the clear advantage,” he says. “It’s the No. 1 consumer-friendly convenience item. Beverages can be bought in a vending machine or brought anywhere you want. The beverage category is vibrant and new product developers are often early adopters of the benefits.”

Education remains key
Knowledge of probiotics and their benefits have expanded, but companies remain cautious about promising health benefits without the science to back up their claims. Over the years, studies have discovered generally recognized benefits of the ingredients.

“Everyone can benefit from probiotics,” says Lauren Weidelman, corporate communications manager for Yakult USA, Torrance, Calif. “There’s been a lot of talk about gut microbiotics, which are important throughout life, but evidence has shown that it’s particularly important at birth and into old age. Your body goes through changes and probiotics are particularly important in infancy as well as in old age because levels of good bacteria decline.”

Yakult, which has its headquarters in Japan, has been growing its presence on the West Coast with its 2.7-ounce fermented dairy-based probiotic beverage of the same name, which first came to the United States in 1999. Fortified with a specific probiotic strain identified by the company’s founder, Minoru Shirota, the brand has been expanding beyond its strongholds in the Asian and Hispanic communities, Weidelman explains.

While the company has benefited from the growing awareness of probiotics in the United States, its emphasis remains on educating consumers on the benefits of probiotics overall, not just its Lactobacillus casei (L. casei) Shirota strain.

“We’ve put in a lot of time and dedication into improving the health of people,” Weidelman says. “The investment has shown with increased sales in Safeway and Kroger, where we’ve spent time educating people on health. But really our sales are secondary; we carry a very strong mission of education.”

Although Yakult has more than 100 clinical studies on the benefits of its proprietary strain, Weidelman says, the company is careful on how it communicates the benefits.

“In terms of education it’s very tricky,” she says. “We try to be careful because we don’t want to mislead people. We have more than 100 clinical studies on our strain, so we know how probiotics realistically work, but we can’t promise how they will work in your body.”

Yakult also has a program dedicated to educating dietitians. Recently, it launched a Web site specifically for members of the profession to access Yakult’s research on probiotics. In addition, the company announced plans to build a plant in the United States within two years. Currently, Yakult is only available on the West Coast because its products are imported from its factory in Mexico, Weidelman explains.

General wellbeing also is the focus of Cargill’s probiotic offerings, which include Bifidobacterium lactis animalis ssp. lactis Bif-6, Lactobacillus johnsonii La-1, Lactobacillus paracasei subsp. Paracasei LBC-1 and Lactobacillus rhamnosus L-RAM. Beverages that include the strains can add claims of probiotic inclusion, contribution to the health of the intestinal microflora, and promotion of good health through balance in the intestinal microflora, the company says. Cargill does expect to be able to make specific claims for its strains in the near future, the company says.

Cargill recommends applications in milk-based beverages or smoothies due to neutral or only slightly acidic pH and refrigerated distribution and storage, Cargill says. If a juice application is desired, Cargill recommends its Lactobacillus plantarum strain, which can tolerate low pH and room temperature storage, it says.

Some science has identified the benefits of specific strains in certain demographics. Fonterra has tested its DR10 Bifidus (Bifidobacterium lactis HN019) and DR20 (Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001) and had more than 40 peer reviewed papers published on the strains, explains Isabella Campbell, application scientist, clinical nutrition at the company. Its DR10 strain has clinical evidence establishing that it significantly improves growth in 1- to 3-year-old children by protecting against dysentery and reducing iron deficiency anemia, Campbell says. The second strain, DR20, has been shown to significantly reduce the severity of eczema.

In addition to digestive health benefits, both strains also have shown the ability to improve immune markers in adults and seniors, Campbell says. Fonterra’s strains have been tested and commercialized in different applications, including yogurt drinks, dairy drinks and refrigerated juices. It also has seen its products remain stable in nutritional powder applications, Campbell says.

Addressing digestive health
In order to be considered a probiotic, the bacteria strain must be able to survive passage through the acids in the stomach, resist bile in the small intestine and achieve colonization of the gastro-intestinal tract, Fonterra says. In addition to their resilience, companies also must provide the research data to prove specific benefits of their respective strains. Clinical studies are integral for ingredient companies especially as beverage manufacturers want to be able to tout functional beverages to consumers.

“Danisco has been working extensively to help substantiate the science surrounding its portfolio of ingredients for digestive health, which is essential to advance this market, especially in today’s environment where consumers are skeptical and manufacturers must meet the regulations required to market those products,” says Peggy Steele, global business director of health and nutrition, BioActives for the New Century, Kan.-based company.

The company’s clinical studies have shown that particular strains in its Howaru brand have digestive health benefits as well as immunity boosting and allergic reaction reducing properties. The line includes Howaru Bifido (Bifidobacterium lactis HN019), Howaru Rhamnosus (Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001) and Howaru Dophilus (Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM). Danisco’s Howaru line is well-suited to juice applications as well as the standard dairy-based beverage applications, the company says.

In addition, Danisco offers Litesse polydextrose prebiotic fiber, which is a dual functioning fiber, Steele explains. Litesse polydextrose is clinically proven to be well tolerated at the levels necessary to improve digestive health without the discomfort associated with some prebiotic fibers on the market, Steele says.

“Recent human intervention studies combined with in vitro and metabolism data, have demonstrated that Litesse functions particularly well as a prebiotic, sustaining its impact throughout the length of the colon,” Steele says. “This provides beverage formulations new options for innovative drinks targeted at digestive health. The positive effects of Litesse as a sustained prebiotic is apparent at doses as low as 4 grams per day.”

Litesse is a highly soluble fiber that can be included in ready-to-drink products as well as powdered beverages, particularly low-calorie, sugar-free options, Steele says. The prebiotic ingredient has a clean, neutral taste flavor profile and is stable over a wide pH range and under a variety of processing and storage conditions, Danisco says.

ADM and Matsutani have invested in clinical studies to provide evidence of the benefits of their Fibersol-2 product. The ingredient has many clinical studies showing efficacy in relieving occasional constipation and that it supports or maintains intestinal regularity in doses as low as 5 grams, ADM’s Buck says. The partnership also has tested Fibersol-2 at high doses of 20 grams or more, which have been well tolerated on an empty stomach. From a food product development perspective, Fibersol-2 does not have an effect on taste or texture, the company says.

In addition to being an important part of a daily diet, fiber can have functional benefits. Prebiotic fibers can help probiotic strains grow and thrive in the intestinal tract. Awareness of the importance of fiber may be growing, but American consumers remain unaware of its possible fat oxidation and colon health benefits, National Starch’s Klacik says.

National Starch markets a range of prebiotic fibers, including Hi-Maize and Nutriose. Hi-Maize has been implemented in smoothie mixes, but is most suitable in non-beverage applications, the company says. Nutriose has been successfully included in beverages, Klacik says. It provides an effective level of fiber and remains invisible in clear beverages.

The inclusion of fiber in a beverage opens fiber intake to new periods during the day and can be mixed with other categories of fortified foods, such as pasta, breads and cereals, to achieve optimum intake, Klacik says.

In addition to digestive health, studies also have shown immunity benefits from probiotic and prebiotic ingredients. In May, Nestlé’s Juicy Juice brand introduced an Immunity formula fortified with prebiotic fiber for children. The functional formula is available in Apple and Berry and includes vitamin C, zinc and as much prebiotic fiber as an apple, the company says.

Fonterra also has completed studies showing that its DR10 and DR20 strains enhanced both the activity of natural killer cells and resistance to tumor cells, the company says. The studies have included adults as well as seniors, Campbell says.

Danisco’s Howaru Bifido probiotic strain has been clinically proven to enhance the body’s natural immune response, especially in children and the elderly, the company says. The company also released the results of a study showing Howaru probiotics reduced the severity and incidence of cold and flu in children. The company tested the shelf-life of the probiotics and found Howaru probiotics can survive in a fruit juice for more than 40 days at 4 degrees Celsius, said Marie Jane Fallourd, beverage group manager at Danisco, in a statement.

Versatile inclusions
Not only have consumer understanding and clinical research expanded the market for probiotics and prebiotics, but some companies are working to expand their possible applications. New options for inclusions correspond with consumer research that the demand for health and wellness products spans across beverage categories.

Chr. Hansen, Milwaukee, offers several strains of probiotics, including BB-12, LA-5 and L.casei 431, which have been clinically tested. In the future, Chr. Hansen suggests kefir and whey drinks might represent categories for probiotic-enhanced applications. Whey drinks are already popular in northern Europe, are low-fat and contain easily digested proteins, it says.

“There are numerous examples from the global market where probiotics are used in a wide variety of fermented beverages, fermented milk or whey, blends of fermented milk with fruit juices, fermented soy or rice milk,” says Mirjana Curic-Bawden, senior scientist, application manager for Chr. Hansen.

Including probiotics in a new application or category might require more support, Curic-Bawden says.

“If the new probiotic product is a completely new concept or applied in unfamiliar delivery vehicle — not yogurt — the launch of the product needs to be well-supported by a marketing campaign, advertisement, promotions and consumer education,” she says.

Tate & Lyle, Decatur, Ill., says consumer research has shown fiber has applications across beverage categories. Promitor soluble fibers have been shown to have prebiotic effects and are available in polydextrose liquid and powdered form, the company says. Promitor remains clear in beverages and its pH makes it suitable for all types of beverages and mixes, explains Adrienne Stuckey, food scientist at Tate & Lyle.

Made from corn, the liquid form of Promitor handles like corn syrup, she says. Promitor also has no special inclusion requirements and remains stable and has low pH. Additionally, Promitor fibers are low-calorie and well tolerated, she explains. Even 25 grams of Promitor has low-gastrointestinal effect and consumers likely cannot tell that they are getting their fiber intake for the day, Stuckey says.

“It’s an advantage of Promitor that consumers can have 25 grams of fiber without any gastrointestinal effect,” she explains.

GTC Nutrition, Golden, Colo., also emphasizes the flexibility of its prebiotic ingredients: NutraFlora short-chain fructooligosaccharides and Purimune galactooligosaccharides. By nature, fructooligosaccharides, such as NutraFlora, have been used in neutral-pH beverages and refrigerated juices and smoothies due to their susceptibility to hydrolysis at low pH, says Cristina Munteanu, senior food applications specialist at GTC Nutrition. Lower pH levels, at two or above, are more suitable for galactooligosaccharides,including Purimmune, she says.

The ingredients are invisible and do not impact the sensory properties of the beverage, Munteanu says. The invisible nature of the ingredients allows manufacturers to add digestive, immune and bone health claims to the products without changing the nature of the product.

“Both NutraFlora and Purimune are highly effective at low-inclusion levels and supported by sound science,” Munteanu says. “These oligosaccharides are highly soluble, clear in solution and do not contribute to viscosity. Futhermore, these products are stable in processing, have clean flavor and do not alter the sensory profile of beverages.” BI