The survey, contracted by Dutch ingredients maker DSM, was put to consumers in the US, France, Germany and the Netherlands to find out what customers' digestive health needs are, with a view to guiding future clinical research.
The survey shows the US is lagging behind Europe in terms of accepting the idea of friendly bacteria, where less than a quarter of respondents were unsure of their gi health product consumption. But the situation in the US is slowly changing through increased exposure thanks to campaigns such as that of Danone's Activia line.
DSM has a solid reason to investigate customer needs in the US specifically, as it has begun selling its brand of Lafti probiotics for supplements as well for dairy in the country.
According to the survey, Americans are in fact just as concerned about their health, if not more, than Europeans- they just may not know as much about the issue. Overall health was highlighted as a "very important" issue for 55 percent of US respondents, compared to just over 50 percent for European respondents.
This does not mean they lead healthy lifestyles though, according to Birgit Kamp, business manager for digestive health at DSM. "How many of these people turn their attitude into behavior?"
And while waiting for ideas to translate into action, ingredients makers have had to sit back and wait for the advertising to trickle down to the consumer and incite a need for probiotics in the US.
The message is still rippling out in Europe, where Danone's sales of its probiotic Activia yoghurt rose 30 percent in the third quarter of 2005.
"I think it's very much a question of education," said Kamp. "Educating the consumers that not all bacteria are bad bacteria."
Another factor could be the health claims regulation in the US. No health claim has been approved linking probiotics to digestive health, so manufacturers may be understandably wary of putting bold claims on their products. In the EU, where health claims legislation is on the point of being introduced, mild claims have been acceptable - or at least not penalized - in some countries.
The survey, led by Dutch firm TNS NIPO, isolated heart health, weight management and immune system health as the three most important areas of concern for US respondents. The immune system showed up in the 'top three' lists for all five countries, and DSM is conducting research accordingly.
"Natural defense is one of our key strategic areas," said Kamp, adding that DSM is looking at how it can zero in on a strategic scope that would differentiate the company from other probiotic suppliers.
In order to find out what food vehicles could work best for probiotics, the DSM study asked consumers specific questions about their digestive health, attitudes to the subject, as well as about their diets. The results are not publicly available because of their strategic nature said Kamp.
TNS NIPO conducted two qualitative focus group sessions per country in the study and a quantitative Internet survey.