By Max Rothman
We’re near the end of the fuzzy era. Near the end of questionable claims shrouded in colorful flavors, turning quickly into millions of dollars, sometimes hundreds of millions. Near the end of the days when Vitaminwater and Sobe sprinkle mystery vitamins and herbs and consumers drink them, satisfied, complacent, knowing that somehow they’re improving their well being.
According to Debbie Wildrick, beverage industry veteran and consultant, more and more often, consumers are starting to ask questions. Whether it’s for their swelling waistline, their actual health or their Instagram account, that’s not for us to say. But they’re probing the labels and not settling for hollow promises. They want results backed by science. They want noticeable change from their own research.
Wildrick and others in the beverage industry believe that these consumer actions, increasing by the day, could bring a category such as probiotics, with its growing number of products and its still questionable but increasingly credible benefits, from the shadows of the natural channel to the radiance and potential of the other aisles. As it so often goes with developing categories, a lack of widespread awareness could be the only aspect hindering the spread of probiotic beverages.
“I would certainly say that it’s a trend that is on its way up, which will move it more into mainstream,” Wildrick said.
While the category hasn’t yet broken out, a substantial, diverse list of established brands touting probiotics as their primary feature have already hit the shelves.
Lifeway Kefir, a yogurt-like smoothie, has been in business since 1986 and displays the word “probiotic” on the front of its flagship offering, Original Kefir. Because of its firm footing in the industry, Lifeway has expanded its Kefir products into a wide array of probiotic lines, including Organic Kefir, Organic Whole Milk, Helios Kefir and Organic Green Kefir, to name a few.
Another well-regarded beverage in the category is KeVita, a sparkling probiotic drink. Similar to a natural-channel version of industry darling Sparkling ICE, KeVita combines a sparkling beverage with, in many of its SKUs, fruit flavors commonly found in teas and lemonades. KeVita is also certified organic, non-dairy, non-GMO, gluten free and vegan.
In 2008, Naked Juice released a pair of probiotic smoothies: Very Berry and Tropical. These exact SKUs, which served as perhaps the first mainstream attempt for probiotic beverages, have since been discontinued. However, among its multi-categorical line, Naked does currently sell Probiotic Machine Tropical Mango, another juice smoothie, but it’s far from a primary focus for the company.
GoodBelly, a probiotic fruit drink, is another dairy-free option that features several flavors one might find with teas and lemonades, such as mango, lemon ginger and pomegranate blackberry. Unlike other probiotic beverages, such as KeVita, GoodBelly uses just one strain of probiotics: lactobacillus plantarum. GoodBelly CEO Alan Murray said that after a long line of testimonials and clinical studies, he believes in this probiotic. He also said that it does just fine by itself, without the help of other strains. As he comically explained, more isn’t always better.
“If you put all nice people in a room together, they might not all get on,” Murray said.
Also chipping into the probiotics category is kombucha, a developing category in its own right. GT’s Kombucha has long been the dominant leader in the space, however other brands have begun seizing market share, such as Reed’s Culture Club Kombucha, Kombucha Wonder Drink and Búcha Live.
Ron Lloyd, the CEO of Búcha Live, said that antioxidants from the tea serve their own purpose, however the active ingredients in kombucha are the probiotics — the real workhorse in the beverage that fights what he dubs “sour stomach.” He also called kombucha the original probiotic.
“That’s one of the reasons why this category still has staying power after all these years and gaining momentum,” Lloyd said.
A DEBATABLE SCIENCE
Despite augmenting progress in the market for probiotic beverages, Jason Mitchell, the director of science for MetaBrand, holds a rather significant qualm. The probiotic bacteria in these beverages, he said, probably doesn’t survive long enough to deliver on all the promises of a label. While the beverage could still help the immune system, he said that it’s not going to do much for digestive health.
“Delivering a probiotic in a beverage, in a traditional beverage format, is right now not very possible,” Mitchell said.
That’s because the nature of making a beverage is antibacterial and, thus, the idea of a probiotic beverage is almost counter-intuitive at this time, he said. Cold-pressed juices have become one of the fastest-growing beverage categories in the industry. However, Mitchell said that the cold-press process, for juice or any other beverage type, requires preservatives that quickly kill the bacteria. A heating process creates the same result.
Mitchell argues that the idea of a probiotic beverage, in its most effective format — altering pH and defeating other bacteria and pathogens — remains nearly a paradox.
“All the ways they do beverages either add something that kills it or the process itself kills bacteria,” he said.
Many people will tell you that probiotics are delicate, Mitchell said, but perhaps not as delicate as they may suggest. Most probiotic beverages use bacillus coagulans (BC), a durable type of bacteria that is still understudied but could have the ability to boost the immune system and mitigate harmful bacteria. BC has a heavy coat that protects it against the effects of heat and moisture, which, as stated before, can instantly kill other bacteria.
“Short of lighting it on fire, you can keep it pretty much alive,” Mitchell said.
KeVita, for example, names four bacteria on its label: lactobacillus paracasei, lactobacillus plantarum, lactobacillus rhamnosus and a form of BC. Mitchell said that he hasn’t tested the product because it would likely be a waste of time and money. However, if he did, he said that of those four bacteria, only BC would be alive.
“The lactobacillus rhamnosus has been dead for a while,” Mitchell said. “As soon as they bottled it, it’s dead.”
Even with BC’s stability, he’s not entirely sure how much it helps the functions of the digestive system. With such an impenetrable coat, Mitchell said that BC could be crowding out parts of the immune system and negating its original purpose.
Finding a greater balance, a bacteria with greater efficacy in tablets, and, after some research and development, maybe even in beverages, has become Mitchell’s greatest task. He likened it to tracking down the holy grail.
“To isolate something that’s microscopic,” he said, “how do you do it?”
Murray, however, thinks that the search has at least temporarily ended. He said that, on the contrary, probiotic beverage companies have already done enough on the developmental side. He doesn’t believe that the beverages need to be more effective.
“I don’t buy into that,” he said.
Instead, Murray has his sights on that typical mountain that sits before emerging categories — the educational process.
Far removed from her sultry role in Trading Places, Jamie Lee Curtis has spent the past few years hawking Activia, a probiotic yogurt. This, Wildrick said, has helped consumers who don’t already suffer from digestive issues to at least hear the word “probiotics,” but that doesn’t mean they understand it yet.
She said that consumers are so accustomed to taking antibiotics that they don’t know much about probiotics. The same could once be said for antioxidants.
“You need to turn probiotics into a buzzword, very similar to the way that POM Wonderful did [for] antioxidants,” Wildrick said.
POM took a feature, antioxidants, combined it with a benefit, heart health, and created a widespread understanding. She said that this understanding could be replicated with probiotics, the feature, and digestive health, the benefit. She also said that she’d like to see more research on the effect of probiotics on the immune system as a whole. However, as seen by recent lawsuits filed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) against Yoplait and Dannon, you’ve got to walk a fine line. This explains why GoodBelly markets digestive health instead of talking about the immune system.
Even with the tight labeling language, Murray said that he’s pleased with his company’s growth. GoodBelly can be found nationwide in Kroger, King Soopers, Ralphs, Fred Meyer, Safeway, Raley’s, Harris Teeter and, in the natural channel, Whole Foods, Sprouts, Fresh Market and Vitamin Cottage. He said that according to data from SPINS, a market research provider on natural and specialty products, GoodBelly has increased sales volume in the refrigerated juices and functional beverages category by 22 percent, year-to-date ending on Sept. 28.
Yet despite the national footprint and the encouraging growth figures, Murray also doesn’t think that mainstream consumers have reached a high level understanding probiotics, even if this country may need the benefits of probiotics more than any other.
“I don’t think Americans enjoy talking about digestive issues too much,” he said.
Similar to Wildrick, he also said that probiotics haven’t fully matured an identity on the shelf. In some stores, GoodBelly sits next to juices. In others, especially those in the natural channel, it sits next to yogurts and yogurt drinks. However, he thinks that experimentation by retailers and consumers could mold the identity into a more mature state.
He also believes that, alongside the credible word of medical practitioners, gastroenterology doctors and nursing assistants, marketing efforts, such as GoodBelly’s 12-day challenge, which has surveyed thousands of consumers and tallied an approximately 83 percent success rate, could go a long way in helping the mainstream to not just understand probiotics, but also to trust the benefits.
GoodBelly doesn’t want consumers to change their habits. Rather, Murray wants consumers to upgrade their juice in the morning. He believes it’s a minor change with worthy benefits, and, if amplified to a national scale, across the entire category, it could yield massive results for probiotics.
“This,” Murray said, “is at the birth of an explosive growth.”
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