Where probiotics might sell, beyond yogurt

June 14, 2011

Consumers might need more confidence that probiotics in many other products will benefit them before rushing to buy.

Probiotics were a dairy case sensation, surging past the $1 billion sales threshold in yogurt products in U.S. supermarkets just two years ago, reports Nielsen.  Probiotic yogurts even posted 15.4% dollar sales growth during a 52-week period of the recession, before segment gains slowed to 5.2% and then flattened at $1.12 billion in the latest year ended April 16, 2011.  Equivalized unit volume was down 1.1% in this most recent period.

These Nielsen figures represent sales in U.S. food stores ($2 million and over in annual sales, excluding supercenters) of prepackaged, UPC-coded products labeled with a probiotics characteristic. 

Seeking similar advances elsewhere in the food store, brand marketers are introducing probiotics into a wide variety of items.  Nielsen data show that products with a probiotics claim appear in 28 different categories.  These categories are quite varied. Among them: vitamins, milk, cottage cheese, ice cream, baby foods, cereals, frozen novelties, juices, soft drinks, teas, puddings, spreads, crackers, breads, salad dressings, candies, cookies and more.

And more are coming. At the Natural Products Expo earlier this year, probiotic foods on exhibit included pizzas, pasta, chocolate bars and pet foods, observed the Los Angeles Times.    

Let’s call this probiotics opportunism. Because simply having a probiotics claim on a package doesn’t mean consumers will derive digestive or other health benefits.  Will these same products also include prebiotics? Will the probiotic counts and strains in products be significant? For how long can the bacteria stay alive in order to be effective? Until clarity and standardization come to probiotics claims, consumers won’t be able to judge what they’re paying for, and that will stifle interest.  

Consumers inclined to buy probiotics could turn to supplements instead. Yet these pose efficacy questions too.  “Some probiotics may contain as little as seven percent to 58% of the cells listed on their labels – and the amount of living cells actually provided by probiotic products ranged from less than 100 million to over 10 billion cells, more than a 10,000% difference,” says ConsumerLab.com, an independent tester.

Efforts in categories beyond yogurt are fledgling.  Of the $1.26 billion in total probiotic sales in supermarkets, probiotic yogurt accounts for $1.12 billion. Segments showing early sales activity, but not all positive, appear mostly within the dairy section. For example:

  • Probiotic vitamins. Just $10.0 million three years ago, dollar sales were up 24.8% to $46.9 million in the latest 52 weeks ended April 16, 2011, on a 19.4% EUV rise, according to Nielsen.
  • Probiotic milk. In a three-year downturn, ended the latest 52 weeks down 2.4% to $38.1 million, on an 11.8% EUV drop.
  • Probiotic cottage cheese, sour cream and topping.  Also in a three-year slide, finished the latest 12 months down 5.3% to $22.8 million, on a 7.2% EUV decline.
  • Probiotic ice cream. Under $1 million three years ago, the latest annual advance of 262.4% brought it to $9.1 million, on a 253.2% EUV rise.