Beverages Made Healthier With Probiotics

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

‘Probiotic’ products are everywhere, but not all consumers know exactly what they are or how they benefit health. The addition of probiotics to products can provide beverage manufacturers with unique opportunities. By Lisa Flower, marketing manager ANZ, Chr. Hansen

There is undoubtedly increasing conversation, investment and interest around the human microbiome and the role that the gut plays in human health.

The microbiome interacts intimately with the rest of our body. The human body contains over 100 trillion bacteria and more than 1,500 different species. It is the bacteria living in the intestine—the gastrointestinal microbiota—that constitutes the largest part of the human microbiome. The intestine also contains 60-70 percent of human immune cells.

Interaction between gastrointestinal microbiota and probiotics has gained much awareness over the past decade. Clinical research has shown that probiotics play a role in various health areas, and gastrointestinal health and immune function have been the focus of most research.

What Are Probiotics And Prebiotics?

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Probiotics is derived from Greek and simply means “for life” as opposed to antibiotics referring to “anti-life”. These bacteria have been around for thousands of years and occur naturally in our environment.

However, it wasn’t until the early 1900s when Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff suggested that there were health benefits of lactic acid bacteria, based on theories around longevity of Bulgarian peasants, that probiotics began to gain momentum.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), probiotics are defined as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit of the host.”

Probiotics need to be alive at the time of ingestion, survive in the gastrointestinal tract, and they must be microorganisms. Most probiotic organisms are bacteria, belonging to the Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium genera.

“Administered in adequate amounts” is closely linked to the documentation of the clinical trials the probiotics has undergone and the health benefit it is associated with. As a general rule, probiotics need to be consumed at a level of greater than one billion per day to bring a health benefit to people and this can be referred to as the ‘daily dose’.

The effect of the probiotic culture is strain-specific and a great deal of research goes into identifying, selecting, isolating and rigorous clinical testing before a strain can be considered suitable for commercialisation as a probiotic.

Often mentioned alongside probiotics, are prebiotics, which are fibres that pass through the gastrointestinal tract undigested and stimulate the growth or activity of probiotics—basically they are like food for the probiotics. These fibres include fructans and galacto-oligosaccharides, which can be purchased by food ingredient companies.

Examples of food sources of prebiotics are outlined in the table below:

What Are The Health Benefits Of Probiotics?

A quick Google search would lead you to think that probiotics can cure just about any ailment and while that may be true, it is much wiser to look for strains that have widely documented clinical studies associated with them. The best-documented strains will have been described in hundreds of scientific publications and studied in more than 50 clinical studies.

Typical documented health benefits from probiotics include: “increase the body’s resistance to common infections”, “reduce the incidence and duration of respiratory infection”, “improved bowel function”, “a beneficial effect on both the incidence and duration of diarrhoea in infants and children”, and ”supporting bone health”.

Consumer's Understanding Of Probiotics

According to a study conducted by Chr. Hansen in 2015, over 70 percent of Australian consumers claimed and demonstrated knowledge and understanding of probiotics. These consumers were able to quite accurately describe the action of a probiotic when asked in the said research study.

Unsurprisingly, consumer research studies across France, Japan and Australia also by the company have found that the consumer associates the benefits of probiotics most commonly with good digestive health, although “supporting immune function” also has a high association level in both Asia-Pacific studies.

It was found that in Japan and France, the Bifidobacterium strains are the best recognised probiotics, while in Australia it is Lactobacillus that consumers are aware of. Consumers expect probiotics in applications such as yoghurt, drinking yoghurt and even in milk. While in Japan, a probiotic drinking yoghurt is viewed by the consumer most likely as a snack, which is reflective of the packaging format.

Probiotics In Beverages

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An easy way to intake probiotics for consumers, besides the conventional supplements, could be through beverages. There are three different methods by which probiotics can be added to these.

For example, they can be added in as part of the fermentation process of certain beverages. This could be a dairy base, with drinking yoghurt or kefir, or non-dairy such as almond, soy, coconut or kombucha.

In non-fermented applications, the probiotics culture can be aseptically dosed, though this does require quite specific equipment. Being aseptic, the process allows for lower pH to ensure there is no contamination of spoilage microorganisms, yeast and moulds or pathogens. This method can be considered for juice and other non-dairy beverages.

In juice products, composition does need to be carefully considered. For example, overtly acidic conditions will kill the probiotic or naturally occurring chemicals such as polyphenols which have anti-microbial properties. However, juices such as orange or banana juice work well with probiotics.

The addition of probiotics to products with short shelf-lives such as fresh juices will not further detrimentally impact shelf-life. In contrast, with shelf-stable products like a long-life juice, these will no longer be shelf-stable with the addition of a live probiotic. Some probiotics, such as L. paracaseii will acidify the end-product, thereby reducing shelf-life. Therefore the strain of probiotics needs to be considered with each application.

The third method for addition of probiotics to a beverage could be, not within the main part of the beverage, but rather as part of the delivery system. Typically, this would mean the probiotic is dosed through a straw or a cap at the time of consumption. At present, this type of product is still struggling to be adopted by the mainstream market.

It is generally recommended that if probiotics are to be added to any product, storage conditions should be chilled.

The pack format for probiotic containing beverages has, over the past few years, diversified from just a single serve, to different pack sizes for women, men and children and even family size bulk packs.

Beverages Provide A Suitable Fit

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The addition of probiotics to an application needs to make sense to the consumer, and certainly in dairy-based beverages, this is a natural fit. It should be noted however that such beverages can be very market-dependent; what meets consumer demand in one market may be viewed differently in another.

Dairy is popular, but there is a growing portion of the global population who are non-dairy consumers (because of allergies, diet preference, etc.), so it makes sense that probiotics should be made available in other non-dairy applications.

The modern consumer has a good awareness of the need for probiotics to be consumed daily in order to achieve the health benefits witnessed in the consumer research studies as mentioned previously. This drives an increased consumption and sales volume of probiotic-containing products when they are promoted for everyday use.

Healthy juices and smoothies have a health halo, as do probiotics, so there is a fit between the two for this type of applications. Also, being sourced naturally, probiotics are in line with the global trend for clean and clear labels across all food and beverage product categories, which can increase such products’ appeal to consumers.

Further, adding probiotics into a beverage product can premiumise it, adding value to the brand and differentiating the specific products from others within the same category. For a few cents per litre, significant value can be achieved through the addition of probiotics.

Incorporating Probiotics Into The Market

There currently is no global legislation on the labelling of probiotics, and the legal requirements are completely dependent in the market that is manufactured in, targeted for, or sold in.

In some countries such as the EU and Japan, manufacturers are no longer allowed to promote their products with the use of probiotic claims without proven evidence, and clever marketers have come up with more subtle messages instead. These rely upon the reputation of probiotics combined with imagery to get the message across.

Today, only few foods have been approved for a health claim through the FOSHU regulation in Japan. Last year, however, the country opened up a new route to health claims, through which several producers of probiotic dairy products have applied as of now. Other countries such as Australia and New Zealand allow for health claims when a series of criteria are met.

In the US, the term ‘probiotic’ is generically allowed with the presence of lactic acid bacteria in foods as long as there is a minimum cell count present. It is also possible to make a structure-function claim on a specific health benefit, provided the marketer can show a possible relationship between the probiotics and the health benefit through published scientific studies.

Research has shown that consumers are interested and do look for particular strain information or trade-marked probiotics names, and this can be a consumer-friendly way to communicate the presence of probiotics. Cell count is another way to communicate probiotics even in countries with stricter regulations.

If probiotics are to be incorporated in a product, then it makes sense to tell the consumer about them and to educate the consumer about the benefits they can expect from consuming them.

Your probiotic culture supplier will be able to provide you with all of the information you require if you are looking to make health claims, and they can also support you in your formulation and trial work. They would generally be eager to partner with you to get the health messages about probiotics out to the mainstream consumers.