Probiotics: Yogurt's secret ingredient

Probiotics are now added to yogurt, sports drinks, coffee—even shampoo. Meet the specialized manufacturers feeding off the craze.

Yogurt with blueberries. Delicious! (Photo: J Shepherd/Getty)

Disconcerting though it may sound at first, human intestines teem with bacteria: an estimated 100 trillion micro-organisms slosh about in your gut. And an increasing number of North Americans want to add more. Since probiotics entered the popular lexicon a few short years ago, bacteria have become one of the most sought-after food ingredients. Already common in yogurt, you may soon find them in coffee, performance-enhancing sport drinks and shampoo at a supermarket near you. One thing, though, hasn’t changed—the small number of companies offering the crucial ingredient. “In terms of manufacturers like us, globally, there’s really only a handful,” says George Paraskevakos, director of business development at Harmonium International. “I’d say three-quarters of the market in Canada is manufactured out of our plant in Mirabel.”

‘Probiotics’ refers to bacteria that, when consumed in sufficient quantities, benefit the health of people or animals. Although the term (it means “for life”) wasn’t coined until the 1960s, understanding of them began more than a century ago when Ilya Mechnikov, a Russian-born Nobel laureate in the late-19th and early-20th centuries suggested drinking sour milk containing bacteria—which sparked a fad diet in Paris. In the 1990s, entrepreneurs unleashed a torrent of probiotic dietary supplements, many of which were sold in niche health-food stores. Small manufacturers sprouted up to meet this demand, including a cluster in Quebec. One problem, though, was that the bulk of probiotics research was preliminary at best. It merely suggested specific strains might boost immunity, inhibit cancer growth, suppress diarrhea or sooth aching bowels. With characteristic gusto, marketers jumped to bolder conclusions.

Probiotics first gained mainstream popularity in Europe and Japan, but were largely ignored in North America until Danone, the French drink and food giant, launched its probiotic-fortified Activia yogurt here in 2006. “They were spending $120 million to $130 million annually in North America to talk about Activia and probiotics,” Paraskevakos says. “That really started opening people’s eyes.” Probiotics could not have found a better delivery mechanism than yogurt. “If you looked at the entire American diet 10 years ago, and the diet today, the thing that has increased most is this product called yogurt,” says Harry Balzer, the chief food analyst at market research firm NPD Group. He calls it “the food of the decade.” He attributes its success to convenience and customization—it’s often served in small packages, in virtually any desired flavour. Probiotics rode the wave: a decade ago, Balzer says, about 10% of Americans said they wanted to add probiotics to their diet. By last year, that number had grown threefold. And Balzer notes that, while other dietary crazes (dietary fibre, antioxidants, Omega-3) seem to be waning, probiotics is still going strong.

Conceiving new products, though, is easier than making the prerequisite strains. Manufacturers need hard-won expertise to select strains that can be harvested in commercial quantities yet survive food processing, stomach acids and bile—and be stable enough to have a reasonable shelf life.

Take Harmonium’s strain of Lactobacillus acidophilus, which it dubbed HA-122. Paraskevakos says Harmonium tested about 90 other strains before settling on that one. And because no other company could exactly replicate Harmonium’s equipment and processes, another manufacturer seeking to grow the same strain might get radically different results.

Harmonium makes a total of 27 strains from a facility in Mirabel, Que. They’re fermented, concentrated and freeze-dried at below -60° C. The resulting solid crust is then ground into powder. The company ships much of its product in this form to its roughly 100 industrial customers.

The greatest threat to continued growth for probiotics is food and health regulators. The U.S. National Institutes of Health acknowledges that some probiotics “show considerable promise.” But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any health claims for probiotics. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is even more hostile; it studied hundreds of health claims involving probiotics and rejected every one without exception. It will effectively ban use of the term “probiotics” on food labels starting next year. Meanwhile, the hunt is on for the next big thing. Balzer notes consumers are showing enthusiasm for a new subcategory: prebiotics (nondigestible substances that help microorganisms grow). “I’m waiting for postbiotics to show up,” he says.