When it comes to probiotics in the dairy case, innovation in yogurt remains king. But the wheels are in motion where cheese’s ascension to the throne — or at least an elevated position — may not be far behind.
From 2006 to 2008, the number of consumers who bought prebiotic/probiotic yogurt grew by 8 percentage points, according to Mintel International Group Ltd. And the number of spoonable yogurt products launched in the United States and touting probiotics on the label rose to 31 in 2007 from 14 in 2006.
But it’s cheese that has created a buzz during the past year. In 2007, five new cheese products were introduced with probiotics on the label, up from zero in 2006, according to Mintel. Through September 2008, one additional product had been launched. The research, though, is in place to expect more products to come on line as demand grows.
In March 2007, Kraft Foods Inc. became the first major North American food company to introduce a cheddar cheese product with probiotics in the Canadian market, launching Kraft LiveActive. When consumed in adequate amounts, probiotics offer health benefits such as improving digestive health, enhancing the immune system, and promoting regularity.
Kraft saw the product line as an opportunity to provide health benefits for those consumers choosing from the better-for-you dairy products category. Currently, the company offers 300-gram block formats in medium cheddar and marble cheddar, as well as Kraft LiveActive Marble in 10 cheese snacks.
DCI Cheese Co., Richfield, Wis., is another company that has offered probiotic cheeses for about a year. Under its County Line brand, the company offers four 8-oz varieties: pepper jack, Colby jack, Monterey jack and mild cheddar. The cheeses are made with active Lactobacillus acidophilus cultures, which are a good source of "friendly" beneficial bacteria.
Tom Hickey, director of marketing at DCI Cheese, said DCI’s innovation in probiotics in cheese was a natural progression given the obvious health benefits and the need to differentiate in a competitive marketplace. He credited the efforts by leading yogurtcompanies such as The Dannon Co. and General Mills, Inc., through its Yoplait brand, for helping to ease the education efforts on the benefits of probiotics. Going forward, Mr. Hickey said DCI has the opportunity to not only expand the County Line brand, but also to incorporate probiotics into its other brands such as Black Diamond and Salemville.
Chr Hansen, Horsholm, Denmark, recently incorporated probiotic cultures into cheese, but Nanna Borne, marketing manager — cheese cultures, commercial development, Chr Hansen A/S, said the move represents more of an accepted extension rather than a shift away from innovation in yogurt or other dairy products.
"The market is not moving away from probiotic yogurt, but the good message from probiotics are spreading out and cheese is an excellent carrier for probiotics," Ms. Borne said. "Consumers who are used to probiotic yogurts will find it natural that other dairy products also come in probiotic versions."
Most recently, Next Generation Organic Dairy, a Mondovi, Wis.-based dairy that makes cheeses exclusively from certified organic raw milk, introduced a line of gourmet, probiotic-fortified cheese and cheese sticks. The products will be available in six flavors — Colby, cheddar, parsley cheddar, garlic parsley cheddar, Caribbean cheddar and cilantro roasted garlic cheddar — for limited distribution in October and full distribution in December. They are available in six individually wrapped 1-oz sticks in an 8-oz package or single sticks.
The products incorporate GanedenBC30, a strain of Bacillus coagulans that are added after the cheese curd has formed and after the whey has been drained. According to Next Generation, the Ganeden probiotic strain withstands industrial food manufacturing temperatures. In addition, it has the ability to grow in both the small and large intestines.
Steve Pechacek, president of Next Generation, said the addition of GanedenBC30 adds to the appeal of the company’s cheese products.
"We always ask ourselves how we can make our product even better," Mr. Pechacek said. "There aren’t many probiotic cheeses on the market, and the ones that do exist use probiotics that have a tough time surviving. We think that adding GanedenBC30 really makes our probiotic cheese the best."
Added issues for cheese
One reason probiotics have flourished in yogurt products is the ease of incorporation. The same may not be said for adding the beneficial bacterial cultures to cheese.
"Cheese that is stored for a very long time is not optimal for probiotic cultures as the probiotic cells die during the long storage and are not as effective when the cheese is consumed," Ms. Borne said. "Probiotic products are perceived as being more healthy than conventional products and therefore it doesn’t make sense to make probiotic versions of high-fat cheese variants. The cheese production process can also be a challenge as the probiotic cultures are live organisms, which do not tolerate high temperatures."
Dean Sommer, a cheese technologist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, agreed there are challenges in working probiotics into cheese as compared with yogurt.
"In yogurt, you have a short shelf life, but in cheese you may be looking at months," Mr. Sommer said. "In cheese, we have had to look at wide variety, using different methods, different manufacturing technologies and different temperatures."
He said researchers are looking at what probiotics may survive the different variables and which may not. He also said more thought is going into deciding what cheese varieties it makes sense to add probiotics to.
"Trying to deliver probiotics live won’t work in cheese used for cooking (such as pizzas) because it will be destroyed," he said. "We need to identify which cheeses are eaten as table cheeses."
Mr. Hickey of DCI Cheese identified a couple other challenges for cheese makers.
"Yogurt makes sense because it’s portable," he said. "The challenge with cheese is consumers tend to eat it more sporadically than yogurt. That said, there are certain products that are portable, such as cube cheese and string cheese. To get the full benefits of probiotics you need to eat it regularly."
Benefits worth the work
Despite the challenges of incorporating probiotics into cheese products, most industry participants agreed the ultimate benefits are worth the work.
"The benefits of probiotic cultures are the same if you eat them in yogurt or cheese or any other food product," Ms. Borne said. "It boosts the level of natural good bacteria in the body, supports a healthy digestive system, beneficially affects the intestinal flora and it enhance/supports your natural defenses."
Mr. Sommer of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research pointed out that having probiotics in cheese products boasts several benefits.
"Cheese has benefits beyond yogurt," he said. "Cheese is less acidic, and probiotics tend to survive better because it is not as acidic. The proteins in cheese are also very well buffered, which can deliver probiotics alive in larger numbers."
Another benefit is cheese offers the potential to appeal to a wider audience, Mr. Sommer said. He identified the aging population as a sector that may be more open to getting the probiotics they need from cheese as opposed to yogurt, which tends to appeal more to children and young adults.
Michael Bush, vice-president of business development for Ganeden Biotech, Inc., Mayfield Heights, Ohio, agreed that in some instances it’s just a simple case of personal preference.
"Let’s face it — not everyone likes yogurt," Mr. Bush said. "Consumers now have more variety in how they receive their probiotics by adding probiotics to cheese."
The next frontier
Going forward, Ms. Borne said Chr Hansen expects to play a prominent role in advancing probiotic technology in cheese products. She said the company plans to form partnerships with dairies to develop probiotic cheese lines that may include the company’s BB12, LA5 and L.Casei 431 cultures lines.
"The next step will be to go more in to practical examples of probiotic cheese and support the dairies in their launch of probiotic cheese," she said.
From a research perspective, Mr. Sommer said he envisions more work to figure out the real health benefits of the different probiotic strains, as well as using probiotics in cooperation with prebiotics in cheese. Beyond that, he said the possibilities are exciting.
"I would envision a future with probiotics pulling double duty — strains that provide healthful probiotics as well as provide a better, more interesting flavored cheese," he said.