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April 14, 2017
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Opportunities for probiotic cheese hold promise despite challenges

Photo courtesy of The Probiotic Cheese Co. 

PROBIOTIC CHEESE DEMONSTRATIONS — Roxanne Barnes, CEO and co-founder, and Dr. Mark Windt, M.D., president and co-founder, The Probiotic Cheese Co., North Hampton, New Hampshire, conduct weekly demonstrations at stores such as Whole Foods and McKinnon’s Supermarkets to educate consumers about the company’s probiotic cheese products.

By Stephanie Awe

MADISON, Wis. — A popular ingredient in many yogurts, probiotics may hold growth potential in cheese products as well.

Probiotics have grown in popularity in recent years. A 2012 National Health Interview Survey shows that, among adults, probiotics or prebiotics were the third most commonly used dietary supplement other than vitamins and minerals, and the use of probiotics quadrupled between 2007 and 2012, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

Intended to have health benefits, probiotics are live microorganisms that are not only sold in food products, but in other products such as dietary supplements and skin creams as well, NCCIH says.

Attempts to sell probiotic cheese have been made in the past, but it may have a better chance at success today due in part to the promotion of probiotics by yogurt brands and more mainstream pharmaceutical and supplement companies, says Jeff Lambeseder, cultures product manager for North America, DuPont Nutrition & Health, New Century, Kansas. The company, which manufactures probiotics for dietary supplements and food/beverage categories, works with customers to formulate dairy products to include probiotics.

With higher consumer acceptance of fat in dairy products, consumer interest in probiotics and the “snack-ificiation” of cheese in recent years, probiotic cheese may be better equipped to get its foot in the door today, especially in single-serve portions, Lambeseder adds.

“We have not seen a great deal of interest in recent years, but I think that could change as more and more producers are looking to add value to their products,” Lambeseder says. “Probiotics can be a way to differentiate and add value to cheese.”

While it may have potential to grow in the market, probiotic cheese manufacture isn’t without difficulties.

Probiotics are unique ingredients that are different than any other dietary supplement, says Dr. David Keller, vice president of scientific operations at Ganeden Inc., a probiotic ingredient manufacturer based in Mayfield Heights, Ohio.

Named by its genus, species and strain — genus being its most broad classification and strain being the most specific — a probiotic’s efficacy is determined by its strain, Keller says, noting that two different strains, even when under the same genus and species, can have different effects.

When it comes to cheese, certain species — such as Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus rhamnosus — may be more likely to work than others, although their efficacy would be strain-specific, meaning not all strains within these species would necessarily work, says Dr. James Steele, Winder-Bascom professor of food science, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This is a result of a variety of characteristics, the most important of which is the ability to result in a human health benefit — a strain-specific ability, Steele says. Other notable characteristics include the ability to grow and survive in cheese, and to not negatively affect product quality, he adds.

Some strains from Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus rhamnosus are likely to work because the two species are known to grow and survive well in bacterial-ripened cheese varieties, Steele says, noting that some cheese types may be more suitable for probiotics than others.

“I think that cheeses that can be sold relatively young (i.e., Brick or Colby) make the most sense, as they should change the least during shelf life,” Steele says, adding that using pasteurized milk may work best so that there is less variability in the starting microbiota.

One potential benefit of these probiotics in cheese is enhanced gastric passage, as more of the culture may live to the site of action due to the buffering strength of the cheese, Steele says.

At DuPont Nutrition & Health, the company’s probiotics have been found to survive, and even increase in number, through shelf life. Through cheese studies examining Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus paracasei, the company found its probiotics could be added at the same time as some of the company’s starter cultures.

The two cheeses the company has studied most are Cheddar and Gouda, both of which worked well, Lambeseder says. However, cheeses that go through higher cook and stretch, such as Mozzarella and Provolone, as well as cheeses with a higher salt content, present more challenging environments for probiotic survival, he adds.

• Finding the right probiotic

Finding good cultures that are resistant through manufacture and digestion is important, says Kris Fuehr, president, Cascade Culture in Issaquah, Washington.

Cascade Culture offers yogurt flavors containing eight live probiotic varieties, which are cultured in the cup, that aim to create an ideal mix for different areas of the intestinal tract, Fuehr says.

Cultures in yogurts generally include Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus variations such as Bifidobacterium longum and Lactobacillus rhamnosus, among others. Fuehr notes that several factors come into play when choosing probiotics, as options are limited by the prebiotic (or fuel) with which the culture travels and consumes.

The goal for consumers is to consume a variety of probiotics from an array of foods that will help build gut diversity, which may mean consuming yogurt plus sauerkraut, fermented cheese and kombucha in a diet. Consumers will be seeking a variety of probiotic sources as more is learned about them, Fuehr says.

A cheese company that works with probiotic cultures, The Probiotic Cheese Co., North Hampton, New Hampshire, utilizes probiotics in its Probiotic Cheddar Cheese Bites, available in Cheddar and Savory Pepper flavors. The cheeses are sold at Whole Foods stores in the North Atlantic region along with several other retail stores, says Roxanne Barnes, CEO and co-founder, The Probiotic Cheese Co.

The company’s probiotic cheese bites contain no sugar, so by adding probiotics to the cheese, consumers are getting one of the healthiest cheeses available, says Dr. Mark Windt, M.D., president and co-founder, The Probiotic Cheese Co., noting that sugar has been shown to correlate with inflammation leading to multiple diseases.

While also noting that good bacteria is in raw milk cheese, Windt says the company decided to use pasteurized milk in its cheese to assure safe consumption by pregnant women and children. Therefore, the probiotic is added after pasteurization.

Windt says he conducted research and development with a Vermont cheesemaker for three years before deciding on a probiotic that would work best in the cheese bites. Together, they decided to use a probiotic made by Ganeden Inc., called the Ganeden BC30, which is a spore-form probiotic.

Ganeden’s probiotic was chosen because of its heat resistance, a quality that is challenging to find, Windt says.

The probiotic, while heat resistant, cannot be melted or cooked, Windt notes. Due in part to this, the company decided to work with Cheddar, a highly-consumed cheese in the United States that offers a multitude of non-melting applications.

In addition to its current varieties that incorporate the spore-form probiotic, the company is in the beginning stages of incorporating Lactobacillus reuteri as an additional probiotic in its cheese.

Barnes says that multiple medical journals strongly suggest the probiotic helps with weight loss.

Currently, the company is working to find a way to incorporate the probiotic so that it contains 100-percent efficacy, Barnes says.

• Probiotic guidelines

To help provide a guideline for finished goods and ingredient manufacturers using probiotics, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) and the International Probiotics Association (IPA) recently released voluntary, scientifically-based best practice guidelines for the labeling, storing and stability testing of dietary supplements and functional foods containing probiotics.

The guidelines, available at www.crnusa.org/self-regulation/voluntary-guidelines-best-practices/best-practices-guidelines-probiotics, combine best practices that address probiotic measurement, strain, stability testing and storage information.

For example, whereas minerals are measured in milligrams, probiotics should be measured — and therefore labeled — in colony forming units, says Ganeden’s Keller, who chaired the joint IPA and CRN Probiotic Task Force and is part of moving the initiative forward. In addition, the guidelines suggest conditions for stability tests and that labels include storage recommendations to help ensure survival of probiotics through shelf life.

The voluntary guidelines are available for any company using probiotics, Keller says. They take into account current U.S. laws and regulatory requirements, and they will be updated as best practices evolve.

“I’m hoping we can see increased transparency,” Keller says on the release of the guidelines. He adds that consumers have a growing interest in and understanding of the importance of consuming probiotics daily.

• Marketing

Aside from clear labeling, marketing also can play a key role in probiotic food sales — especially for cheese products.

Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain, Wisconsin, and Clock Shadow Creamery, Milwaukee, currently do not offer probiotic cheese, but Bob Wills, president of the companies, says he has not ruled out offering it in the future. However, he says the question for the companies comes down to whether consumers would purchase the cheese. Right now, Wills says it is not a marketing effort he is willing to pursue, although he has no objection to it from a manufacturing perspective.

On the other hand, Barnes and Windt conduct demonstrations with The Probiotic Cheese Co.’s cheese at retail stores each weekend, where they educate consumers about probiotics and the company’s products.

“Being able to meet with our consumers person-to-person is one of the best things we can do to help them understand the incredible health benefits of probiotics,” Barnes says. She adds that, as the company plans to reach nationwide distribution, she hopes to coordinate in-store demonstrations across the country, training others to talk with consumers at least once a week.
The company also has been featured in multiple news, media and television outlets, including “ABC Nightly News” and “The Dr. Oz Show.”

Barnes adds that because the company’s Probiotic Cheddar Cheese Bites are a unique product, the cheese would draw an even wider audience if it were sold within the probiotic health food section of the grocery store in addition to the cheese section. As such, she is striving to move the company’s cheese to the probiotic health foods section, she says.

While still making some marketing adjustments, the company has seen a sales increase since first appearing in stores in January 2016. Since then, sales have increased by 300 percent as of February 2017, according to Barnes.

Windt adds that cheese may be able to provide benefits that other foods, like yogurt, cannot, such as lowered sugar content.

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