Market research by Euromonitor shows that probiotic 'little bottles' have grown by 52 per cent this year, reaching a retail sales value of £28 million, the highest growth in the core European markets. This compares to a decline in plain and natural yoghurts of almost 2 per cent.
The product has benefited from its competitive positioning against soft drinks, as well as bolder graphics in packaging and heavy investment in advertising by major manufacturers such as Danone, Müller and Nestlé, according to Euromonitor industry analyst Francisco Redruello.
But spoonable probiotic yoghurts are also growing fast, and account for more than €280 million in the French market, with growth of 10.4 per cent, for both drinking and spoonable versions together.
The probiotic trend is being particularly exploited in Sweden, with a number of companies launching organic and bio yoghurts in 2003 and 2004, such as Proviva and Primaliv (by Skånemejerier), Verum (by Norrmejerier).
Arla Foods also introduced the Cultura range of probiotic products in May this year - a drinking yoghurt, a natural yoghurt and sour milk - which is meant to compete directly with Skånemejerier's Proviva and also with other health drinks and yoghurts in the market.
But other health ingredients are also being added to yoghurt, underlining its established reputation as a health food and its convenient medium for a daily dose ingredient.
In Spain in particular smaller players have been among the first to bring certain ingredients onto retailer's shelves. Earlier this year Corporación Alimentaria Peñasanta launched a line containing Cognis' fat-reducing ingredient Tonalin CLA while milk producer Leche Pascual introduced a prebiotic-fortified dairy drink called Masvital at the end of last year.
"In Spain yoghurt has always been linked with health. But it is also strategic. There are many small companies on the Spanish market - CAPSA only has 3.3 per cent of yoghurt sales - and focusing on a niche product is a way of escaping from the domination of Danone," Redruello told NutraIngredients.com.
"These firms usually launch products where big companies have a small presence. For example, the prebiotic concept is quite new. Leche Pascual has only just entered the yoghurts market and has less than 1 per cent share of the market so they have decided to go straight for the added value sector in yoghurts, especially premium products," he added.
Other novel ingredients being used by the dairy industry include those that lower cholesterol and although this is still a very new category, it looks set to grow fast. French firm Vedial launched a cholesterol-lowering drinking yoghurt early this year under the St Hubert Ilô brand, which was immediately followed by Danone's introduction in April of a new range of anti-cholesterol yoghurt, sold under the brand Danacol.
The new line was supported by a strong TV and press advertising campaign in the French media. The product label also shows the product to be approved by the French health authorities (l'Agence Française de Sécurité Sanitaire des produits de Santé).
In the United Kingdom, where half the population has high cholesterol levels, Unilever launched an extension line of its low-cholesterol brand Flora Pro-activ in early 2004 in yoghurts and the Benecol brand has also been promoting its version.
"I think we will see new attempts to include new ingredients in dairy products," said Redruello. "And yoghurts will continue to be used because in most markets they [standard type] are growing very little or declining, with low mark-ups."
"There is a lot of competition from private labels so for manufacturers it is an interesting area to get higher added value, while for the consumer, they are willing to pay more for a health benefit."
In 2003, global sales of dairy products reached €211.5 billion, according to Euromonitor, with total value growth of 13.4 per cent from 1998 to 2003 underpinned by good growth in the dominant Western European region.