Probiotics and prebiotics emerge as unlikely success story

Probiotics might once have been considered “least likely to succeed” among functional beverages — after all, most marketers don’t exactly dream of creating campaigns based on bacteria and the inner workings of the gastrointestinal tract. The “gut health” tag these products have been given hasn’t made the job any easier. But while they might be tough to communicate in delicate language, probiotic products are gaining ground and consumer acceptance. According to ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., probiotic food and beverage product claims increased 141 percent in 2007 vs. 2006, and they have grown 1,466 percent during the past four years.

“Over the past six to seven years, consumers have become increasingly interested in healthy diets, plus they’ve started to become sophisticated enough to understand the role of “good” bacteria in their diets and in their bodies vs. thinking of bacteria only as negative,” says Terri Rexroat, global product manager of lactic cultures at Cargill Texturizing Solutions, which makes probiotic ingredients under the Viable brand name. “For these reasons, the popularity of probiotic-containing beverages and foods is expected to continue growing rapidly.”

The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Homeopathic medicine has long promoted probiotics to treat intestinal and other ailments, and increasing amounts of clinical research is being conducted to test those beliefs.

Most probiotics are bacteria similar to the “good” bacteria naturally found in the gastrointestinal tract, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. “Friendly bacteria are vital to proper development of the immune system, to protection against microorganisms that could cause disease, and to the digestion and absorption of food and nutrients,” the NCCAM says on its Web site.

“There’s always been this history of thinking that bacteria are germs and they’re bad for you,” explains Todd Klaenhammer, director of the Southeast Dairy Foods Research Center. “In fact, what we’re learning now is that certain kinds of bacteria exist with us all the time. They’re very positive for our general health, and by eating more bacteria, they may have a beneficial effect as well.”

Klaenhammer says much of the research being done in probiotics has concerned their effect on gastrointestinal issues such as side-effects from antibiotic use, ulcers caused by the Helicobacter pylori bacterium and digestive difficulties. In addition, studies have been conducted to determine the effect probiotics may have on allergic conditions, as well as the gastrointestinal tract’s role in the immune system.

“In our GI tract, we have lots of bacteria that are naturally there, and their ability to be there helps protect us from disease, and it helps our immune system function properly,” Klaenhammer says. “So by taking probiotic bacteria, essentially, what you’re doing is you’re continuing to replenish those bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract that help support what we call a healthy state.”

Proprietary strains

While there are many types of probiotic bacteria, the most commonly used in functional products today are the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium varieties. Within those varieties a number of species and strains exist. An increasing trend has been the use of proprietary strains of bacteria such as Dannon’s Lactobacillus casei Imunitas and Bifidus Regularis, and Yakult’s Lactobacillus casei Shirota.

Dannon’s Activia and DanActive have been breakthrough products in the probiotic world. Activia was introduced in 2006 as a spoonable yogurt, and achieved more than $1 billion in sales. DanActive, packaged as a 3.3-ounce beverage, followed early last year.

Dannon spokesperson Michael Neuwirth says the company’s focus on education and clinical research has resonated with consumers. “Globally, we’ve been researching and making probiotic products for more than 20 years,” he says. “As the first company to introduce probiotics to mainstream America with the launch of Activia in 2006 and DanActive in 2007, we recognize both the need and responsibility to educate about the benefits of probiotics and choosing probiotic products that are clinically proven.”

The White Plains, N.Y.-based company has used Web sites for both Activia and DanActive as educational resources about probiotics and potential health benefits. It also created the online “Dannon Probiotics Center” to cover the topic in detail, including references to specific studies.

Yakult, a dairy-based probiotic drink from Japan, has been available in the U.S. market through ethnic and specialty foods stores for about nine years, and is making its way into mainstream retail outlets. Yakult is based on the Lactobacillus casei Shirota bacteria, and is packaged in 2.7-ounce bottles.

“The benefits of probiotics vary, but the research is very promising,” says Lauren Weidelman, spokesperson for Yakult USA, Torrance, Calif. “There are trillions of types of bacteria in our digestive system that we know of today. Each one has its own unique characteristics and effect on the body. For instance, a general strain like Lactobacillus casei is quite different than Lactobacillus casei Shirota, the studied bacteria strain that is found in Yakult.”

The Shirota bacteria strain was named after Yakult’s founder, who began a campaign to educate consumers in Japan about gastrointestinal health as early as 1935. The product gained popularity in Japan through a door-to-door delivery system that employed “Yakult Ladies.” Weidelman says more than 47,000 Yakult Ladies are responsible for delivering the product in Japan today, and that the company has implemented similar strategies in Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines.

Yakult and Dannon parent company Groupe Danone jointly established the Global Probiotics Council to raise awareness of probiotics, and their partnership has included research grants, meetings and symposia.

New categories

To date, most probiotics have been dairy products, but Naked Juice, Azusa, Calif., expanded the probiotics category last year with the introduction of Naked Juice Probiotics. The company rolled out Tropical Mango and Very Berry juices in 10-ounce bottles that contain a strain of Bifidobacterium bacteria and fructoollgosaccaride prebiotics. Prebiotics are ingredients derived from plant fibers and sugars that are not absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract but are fermented by the bacteria in the GI tract and stimulate their growth and activity — they essentially feed the bacteria.

“What we’ve done at Naked Juice is developed and brought to market the first 100 percent juice product with a probiotic and a prebiotic in it,” Adam Carr, general manager at Naked Juice, told Beverage Industry in October.

Prebiotics are not as well-known as probiotics, but they are thought to offer a number of potential benefits, both in conjunction with probiotics and on their own.

“Prebiotics and probiotics used together are referred to as synbiotics, and are a natural in cultured dairy products,” says Joseph O'Neill, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Beneo-Orafti, Morris Plains, N.J. “In fact, prebiotics boost the body’s own beneficial Bifidobacteria. Interestingly, a combination of prebiotics and probiotics offers the best nutritional (and legal) defense against those who challenge the fact that probiotics alone don’t support claims on immune or digestive health.”

Beneo-Orafti produces inulin and oligofructose prebiotic ingredients. In addition to use with probiotics, inulin can be used on its own to add fiber content to a product and improve the mouthfeel of low-fat products. Oligofructose can be used to replace some of the sugar in a product or mask the flavors of high-intensity sweeteners. The company also offers Orafti Synergy 1, which is a combination of oligofructose and inulin that was formulated specifically to improve digestive health and increase calcium absorption in the body. Other prebiotic ingredients include polydextrose, lactulose and lactitol.

Kraft Foods recently turned to prebiotic ingredients rather than probiotic in the formulation of Crystal Light LiveActive, a drink mix designed to promote digestive health. The product, which contains inulin and has 3 grams of fiber per serving, joins the LiveActive line of cheese snacks and cottage cheese products that feature probiotic and prebiotic ingredients.

Individualized attention

The development and production of probiotic products requires a significant amount of care, says the Southeast Dairy Foods Research Center’s Klaenhammer. Products must be formulated to contain an effective number of bacteria — to the tune of millions of bacteria per gram — and must be produced in a way that will protect the stability and shelf life of the bacteria.

“The definition of probiotic is basically a live microorganism that provides a health benefit, so it’s important that products that are intending to deliver probiotic [benefits] keep those bacteria alive over the shelf life of the product,” he says. “That can be very difficult and it must be optimized for every product.”

Probiotics may be easier to incorporate into beverages than food products due to their aqueous nature, says Cargill’s Rexroat. The company offers a number of probiotic bacteria strains, including Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus acidolphus, Lactobacillus johnsonii, Lactibacillus paracasei and Lactobacillus rhamnosus.

The pH levels of a beverage also are important to consider, she adds. Beverage products often fall below pH level 4, which can be detrimental to probiotic cell viability. “It’s possible that encapsulation of the cells to protect them from the harsh environment could help address this hurdle,” she says.

“In addition, probiotics will not survive temperatures above 120 F, so heat treatment such as for aseptic packaging will kill the cells,” she says. “In this case, it would be necessary to identify a means to add the probiotics after the heat treatment step. This can require a significant process change and possible capital investment, but it is frequently not insurmountable.”

In 2005, Chr. Hansen and Tetra Pak teamed up on a system that allows processors to do just that. Making use of Tetra Pak’s Flex Dos aseptic dosing machine, the companies devised a way to add probiotic bacteria right before filling to prevent heat processing from destroying the bacteria.

As it is with probiotic ingredients, it is advisable to use prebiotic ingredients at a pH level of 4 or higher to reduce the chance of hydrolization, says Beneo-Orafti’s O'Neill. However, he says, “Prebiotics are successfully used in low-pH refrigerated orange juice to support a good source of fiber claim without significantly affecting the viscosity or mouthfeel of the product.”

More research to come

As probiotics gain prominence, more studies are being conducted to determine their effectiveness and exactly how they might work in the body. A number of those studies have hit the news headlines in recent months. The British Journal of Sports Medicine published an Australian study last month that found long-distance runners who took the probioticLactobacillus fermentumcut in half the number of days they were affected by cold symptoms, compared with a placebo group. The researchers cautioned, however, that the results could have been affected by the athletes’ low body mass index and the same results may not be applicable to a less fit general population.

Another study conducted by the Imperial College London and published in Molecular Systems Biology found mice that were fed probiotics had different levels of some chemicals in their systems, possibly signaling a change in the overall dynamics of the gastrointestinal system.

On the flip side, a Dutch study reported last month in the medical journal Lancet found probiotics might have a detrimental effect on people with severe pancreatitis. The researchers were looking for a beneficial effect from the supplements, but said they found probiotics should not be given to patients with the severe form of the illness in the study.

According to industry experts and the National Institutes of Health’s NCCAM, the effects of probiotics can depend on everything from the specific variety and strain of bacteria, to processing conditions, to the individual taking the supplement.

“Effects found from one species or strain of probiotics do not necessarily hold true for others, or even for different preparations of the same species or strain,” the NCCAM says on its Web site.

The group emphasizes that, “Much more scientific knowledge is needed about probiotics, including about their safety and appropriate use.”

With the increased interest in probiotics, and the booming health and wellness category overall, it seems likely that research will only continue to grow.