Chinese dairies are jumping on the probiotics bandwagon, with a spate of new products containing the healthy bacteria being launched in recent weeks.
All of the leading players have launched new probiotic products or extended their ranges since the beginning of June, shows a survey of Mintel's Global New Products Database .For example, Yili introduced a new 390g pack with free spoon for its Big Pieces Fruits Aloe and Kiwifruit Yogurt with LGG bacteria, licensed from Finland's Valio.
It already offers LGG yoghurt in 125g, 200g, 500g and 950g packages as well as a drinking yoghurt in 200g daily-dose bottles. LGG probiotic bacteria can help with the growth of culture inside the body, improve the immune and digestive systems, help with diarrhoea, and reduce allergy, according to the company.
Mengniu, another of China's top three dairies, has introduced a strawberry flavoured probiotic yoghurt to its range. It is claimed to have 200 million probiotic bacteria per 1,000 grams including lactobacillus bulgaricus, streptococcus thermophilus, bifidobacterium and lactobacillus acidophilus supplied by Chr Hansen.
Meanwhile Mengniu rival Shanghai-based Bright Dairy has launched Abioo Jianneng Yoghurt with grape flavour, said to contain 100 million probiotic bacteria per 1,000 grams including lactobacillus bulgaricus and lactobacillus acidophilus. This product is available in a bottle of 190g or as a drink in a 580g bottle.
French group Danone, one of the first to introduce probiotic yoghurts in China, is also keeping up with Chinese innovation, introducing a kiwi and cucumber yoghurt with BE80 bacteria, which is said to make the skin healthy and smooth, and to benefit overall health.
The trend for probiotics, which only started around two years ago in China, has caught on quickly among smaller producers too.
These include Shenyang Dairy, which last month added new flavours to its Huishan Yunzhiwei Yogurt range, said to be rich in four lactobacillus bacteria. It claims the bacteria are good for maintaining health and are said to help improve the digestive system.
Another product, Changbai Mountain Natural Flavour Yoghurt, is said to help stimulate the appetite and improve the digestion system, and Weiquan Food has also introduced a kiwi-flavoured yogurt with B-longum bacteria.Probiotic culture suppliers Danisco and Chr. Hansen say that demand for probiotics is growing by up to 30 per cent each year, thanks to the rapid take-up of domestic heavyweights like Mengniu and Bright Dairy.
Danisco says demand for such products is driven by the rising consumption of dairy, particularly among more affluent consumers, as well as the growing awareness of preventive health.
Consumption of dairy products is still only at 0.3kg per capita each year compared with 9kg in Japan and even Thailand is higher at 3kg. But the sector, especially yoghurts, is growing rapidly. Yoghurt sales are rising by around 40 per cent each year.
Bill Hao, technical sales manager for Chr Hansen's dairy customers, estimates that more than 30 per cent of its cultures sold in China are probiotic cultures.
The invention of freeze-dried cultures some years ago allows culture suppliers to easily distribute the bacteria around vast countries like China, which do not yet have the sophisticated cool chains of western markets.
Probiotics are also being used in emerging applications such as infant formula and the supplements market.
However, like in other markets, expanding use of probiotic bacteria into other food categories such as juices or cereals, will depend on an improvement in shelf-life.
"The problem we face with bacteria is the cool chain. Live cultures must be kept at a certain temperature and so far, dairy products are the best medium," Hao told AP-Foodtechnology.com.
"Going into new categories will also depend on the take-up of probiotic yoghurts and how much promotion these bacteria get through these products," added Hao.
China has a similar approach to health food regulation as Japan, with its 'FOSHU' system. A dossier of evidence of the health benefits of a particular food has to be submitted to China's health ministry for approval before a product can carry the national 'health food' logo.
Many dairy companies have not compiled such dossiers, however, and while some are still making soft claims, especially related to the digestive system, others include probiotic bacteria without making any effort to explain the benefits.
The culture suppliers are trying to improve consumer understanding to help growth of their probiotics businesses. Danisco has created a consumer-targetted website explaining the benefits of its Howaru bacteria and probiotics in general although it is currently only available in English.
Didier Carcano, the firm's vice president of innovation for the culture division, has commissioned a global survey into consumer understanding of probiotics, which will be presented at the IDF conference running this October in Shanghai.
Datasource : Mintel's Global New Products Database .