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The yogurt category has been a reliable workhorse for the supermarket dairy case during the past 25 years, constantly evolving to meet consumer needs. During the latest 52 weeks ending Feb. 24, dollar sales of yogurt and yogurt drinks were up almost 5% in the supermarket channel, reaching $3.45 billion for the year, according to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. Unit sales declined 1% to roughly

The yogurt category has been a reliable workhorse for the supermarket dairy case during the past 25 years, constantly evolving to meet consumer needs. During the latest 52 weeks ending Feb. 24, dollar sales of yogurt and yogurt drinks were up almost 5% in the supermarket channel, reaching $3.45 billion for the year, according to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. Unit sales declined 1% to roughly 3.6 billion items sold, indicating that those dollar sales gains were led partly by price inflation. But, the data also indicate that consumers are happy to pay a little more for premium products that offer additional health benefits.

“Yogurt consumption has been going up for some time,” said Alan Hiebert, education information specialist for the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, Madison, Wis. “USDA data show that yogurt consumption tripled between 1980 and 2005 and doubled between 1990 and 2005.”

Most of this growth has been led by a constant stream of product innovations, Hiebert noted, beginning with the growth of single-serve and multi-pack options and, more recently, the introduction of products targeting kids.

“I can't say whether recent growth has been ‘sudden,’ but I can say that over the past three years over 8,000 new yogurt and probiotic drink products have hit store shelves,” he said. “Yogurt is perceived as a healthful product by many consumers. Today's yogurt section of the dairy case is populated by mostly low-fat, single-serve cups with added fruit and sugar or sugar-free sweetener. We tend to forget that there was a day when yogurt was not available in individual sizes.”

Unfortunately, some innovations have faced slowing or declining sales. While some items aimed at babies, such as Stonyfield Farm's YoBaby brand, enjoyed a good year, with dollar sales up 7.7%, yogurt products geared toward children and preteens haven't fared as well. Yoplait's portable Go-Gurt brand held steady with over $100 million in sales, even as units sold declined by 1.6% in the supermarket channel, but sales of the company's Trix yogurt brand slipped by almost 6%. And, sales of Dannon's Danimals drinkable yogurt fell more than 20%.

Similarly, category standards like Yoplait original, Stonyfield Farm's regular flavor lineup, and Dannon's Fruit on the Bottom have held steady, but unit sales for all of these brands grew less than 2% during the year.

With a constant stream of new products available, retailers are working to allocate limited shelf space to the ones with the most potential, and right now those seem to be items that pair yogurt's already healthy image with some type of added benefit, Hiebert said.

“More recently, new products have revolved around beneficial additives and new cultures. These new products tend to be fairly specific: yogurt for kids, with added omega-3 fatty acids; yogurt for babies, with added omega-3 fatty acids; yogurt with probiotics, to promote a healthy digestive system; yogurt with a culture designed to boost the immune system; and yogurt formulated to enhance skin's appearance.”

Notably, Dannon's probiotic-enhanced Activia line, which promises improved digestive health, has been a rising star in the category, with dollar sales up 22.8% and unit sales up 10.4% during the past year, according to IRI. The company's DanActive probiotic shots, which were developed to support immune-system health, were up 164% during the same period. And, dollar sales of the company's Activia Light line were up almost 2,000%, to $71 million, nearly netting the new brand a spot in the yogurt category's Top 10.

Other “light” brands also performed well, led by Yoplait Light, with sales up 16.5% to more than $315 million, and Dannon's Light 'n Fit brand, growing by a little over 4%.

These “even better for you” yogurt products have been enjoying this surge in popularity for several reasons, researchers noted.

“Culturally, consumers are changing the way they eat,” said Laurie Demeritt, president and chief operating officer of the Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash. “It's not unusual for folks to have five or six mini-meals a day. Yogurt is one of those products that is well positioned to take advantage of the fact that people are eating differently; and as they are snacking more often or eating more mini-meals, it's a convenient product that they can feel good about, and there's benefits there that they feel they're getting that they couldn't get from other snack categories.”

Also, consumers readily accept added functionality claims in the yogurt category, Demeritt explained.

A recent edition of the Hartman Group's newsletter examined why shoppers embrace some functional foods and reject others. Basically, “people don't want to put a lot of work into understanding their food,” the feature noted, so shoppers seem to prefer functionality claims that resonate with what they already know about a product. Since shoppers already associate yogurt with fruit, added vitamins and antioxidants make sense. Similarly, as news spreads about probiotics and their benefits, shoppers are beginning to understand that they're already a natural component of yogurt and other cultured dairy products. Adding different cultures for extra benefits makes sense as well.

“Functionality makes a lot of sense in some categories, and not as much sense in others,” explained Demeritt.

“[Consumers] know that some of those qualities are inherent within a dairy product, and so having that item be a carrier for additional probiotics or additional supplementation fits in with how they already think about these products. Plus, yogurt is already positioned in the consumer's mind as a health product, so therefore it also makes sense if you're dialing up the health benefits a notch, through supplementation or fortification.”

Hiebert agreed, adding that even many of the flavor combinations launched recently tend to emphasize natural antioxidants and other benefits.

“There are also new flavors gaining popularity currently, though they often revolve around the benefits of the flavors,” he said. “For example, pomegranate and cranberry yogurts can promote the antioxidants present in pomegranates and cranberries. Additionally, we're seeing more products with flavor combinations like pomegranate-blueberry, raspberry-cranberry, and white cranberry-strawberry.”

Hiebert also noted that while he hasn't seen any data to indicate whether U.S. consumers understand what probiotics are yet, it did seem to him that education and marketing efforts by product manufacturers, as well as positive media coverage, are making headway.

“To me, it seems similar to the trans fat education that happened a few years ago,” he said. “When research first showed that trans fats may be harmful, most of the general population couldn't define trans fats. A few years later, trans fats are much more top-of-mind.”

Probiotics are one of the most exciting topics being discussed among devoted health and wellness consumers right now, and they're a natural fit with the yogurt category. The notion that the human gut is inhabited by billions of helpful microorganisms that can be assisted by the consumption of foods such as milk fermented with lactic acid bacteria has been around since the early 20th century.

Research in the field has recently been reinvigorated, and studies have helped uncover strains of bacteria that can help people with improved lactose digestion, help prevent certain infections in hospital patients and help ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

“The term ‘probiotics’ is a very general category, and underneath that [category] you have a lot of specific strains and products that have been evaluated, and within those, some have been evaluated a whole lot,” explained Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders, founding president and current executive director of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics.

Research on digestive system microflora and how they interact with the human body is still in its nascent stages, and as such, Sanders noted that it is difficult to make any sweeping generalizations about how probiotics work.

However, recent studies done in day care centers, for example, have indicated that regular consumption of certain probiotics may help prevent people from catching colds and viruses.

“There have been a handful of studies done in day care centers on healthy kids,” Sanders said. “The question they asked was, can consumption of probiotics help them not get sick as often? And the answer in several of these studies appears to be yes.”

As studies continue to emerge in this field, probiotics could eventually enter mainstream consciousness in a way similar to omega-3s, which consumers now associate with improved heart, eye and brain health.

“Consumers are fairly savvy and articulate about the fact that probiotics may be connected to digestive health,” said Demeritt. “They can't speak at length about what they are or how they work. Frankly, consumers don't necessarily want to be educated on it, as long as they feel like it's doing them a service in terms of condition management.”