The new yoghurt - made with a milk protein concentrate (MPC) supplied by Fonterra - is touted as having up to 70 per cent fewer carbohydrates than standard yoghurt, and although Fonterra declined to provide nutritional information about the new product, the level of interest in low-carb products in general should be enough to entice the followers of Atkins and other diet regimes.
US researchers estimate that as many as 17 per cent of North American households are either formally, or informally, following some form of low-carb diet, making this a major business opportunity for companies able to supply low-carb products.
The specially formulated milk protein strain will be produced in Portales, Mexico, by Fonterra's speciality ingredients business Fresh Dairy Solutions, and the finished product marketed and sold in the US by DairiConcepts, a Missouri-based alliance between the Dairy Farmers of America and Fonterra.
Kim Ballinger, sales manager at Fresh Dairy Solutions, said that the new product would help the company shake off its image as a supplier of bulk dairy ingredients. "Before we launched this innovation, our business with yoghurt manufacturers was fairly limited. Now they are starting to regard us as value adding partners, rather than just commodity ingredient suppliers."
According to a source at Fonterra, one major yoghurt manufacturer has already secured production rights, after five months of manufacturing trials - although the company has yet to confirm the identify of the buyer.
But while Fonterra sees growth in the low-carb sector, it is unlikely to have the market all to itself. "We are probably not the only dairy ingredients manufacturer who can produce this product, however, we are one of the few to have the activity system to develop this type of solution," a spokesperson for the company said.
But according to nutrition experts, the commercial shelf-life of low-carb yoghurt products may in any case be somewhat limited. Sara Stannah, resident nutritionist at the British Nutrition Foundation, questions the validity of low-carb yoghurt as a decisive factor in weight loss: "If the product is lower in energy than a standard yoghurt, then it would aid weight loss if consumed instead. But there are also low fat yoghurts on the market that would do the same," she told Dairy Reporter.com.
British health services provider, Bupa, estimates that a 100g portion of diet fruit yoghurt contains on average just 18g of carbohydrate. In contrast, a 100g serving of wholemeal bread - a product whose image has suffered significantly as a result of the low-carb fad - has over double the carbohydrate content, containing on average 42.1g.
It is not surprising, then, that yoghurt has remained relatively unaffected by the low-carb diet trend in the US, with its reputation as a healthy nutritional product offsetting any concerns over carb content. Indeed, yoghurt manufacturers have worked hard to increase the popularity of yoghurts, by targeting key consumer groups, starting with children, and their need for healthy, portable snacks.
Category expansion through innovation has also driven sales, with manufacturers creating yoghurt based drinks and smoothies, new flavours and meal replacements - many with the 'healthy' tag.
The US yoghurt sector - valued at $2.8 billion - posted 7.8 per cent growth (5.5 per cent on a currency and comparison basis) in 2003, helped by these product launches and promotional campaigns.
A spokesperson for the National Dairy Council, the US industry association, suggested that yoghurt manufacturers were likely to continue with marketing campaigns based on the health and nutritional benefits of yoghurt consumption - such as the weight loss associated with consumption of calcium, vitamin D, protein and potassium.