Report backs dairy to buck bad press, highlights ‘huge’ health opportunity

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Dairy, Nutrition

Report backs dairy to buck bad press, highlights ‘huge’ health opportunity
Recent research backs dairy products in their battle to overcome bad press in established markets, while they have 'huge' opportunities to carry health benefits into regions such as the US, Latin American, India and Asia, where per capita consumption remains low, according to a new report from New Nutrition Business.

In its newly published report ’10 Key Trends in Food, Nutrition and Health 2012’, the company identified diary as a product category with a strong ‘naturally healthy’ image amongst consumers in most countries.

Author and dairy market expert Julian Mellentin pointed to the example of “explosive” ​Greek yogurt growth in the US, fuelled by the Chobani brand that posted annual sales of $700m (€531m) in 2011, only four years after its launch.

Against the backdrop of a sluggish economy, Mellentin said that a price premium of 25% (and in some cases up to double) charged for Greek-style yogurts, made their US growth even more remarkable.

A natural message was one of the key factors underpinning Chobani’s success, according to Mellentin, with advertising messages such as: “Some foods are processed so much. Lost nutrients must be added back in. We just use the nutrients nature provides.”

Creating new categories

He added that dairy was more effective than any other retail category at creating new categories and innovative products, pointing to growth of probiotic yogurts for digestive health since the mid-1990s, with Danone’s Activia brand the world leader with €2.5bn sales.

Mellentin wrote: “The decision by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to decline all health claims for probiotics – against the advice of the academic research community – has proven no barrier to the continued success of Activia,”

Activia sales soared 30% in the UK in 2010, he added, the first year it was marketed without a health claim, and by 10% in global terms.

Industry itself faced the challenge of taking generic health benefits and translating them into differentiated, premium products, along the lines of the Fonterra-owned Anlene brand in regard to dairy calcium and bone health, Mellentin added.

Rules for NPD success

He said that ‘rules for success’ for firms in the dairy sector could include: (1) Capitalising on the natural advantages of dairy, and avoiding ‘non logical’ added ingredients such as omega-3 fish oils (2) Focusing on convenient snacks, beverages or yogurts.

Mellentin's other suggestions include: (3) Identifying new niches and product categories (4) Developing dairy products that tapped into the cross-over potential of other 'naturally healthy' ingredients such as fruits, vegetables and grains, as per Danone with its Powerfruit variant of Actimel in Europe.

Other trends noted by Mellentin included emerging science that was improving the industry’s image, especially in regard to changing negative perceptions of dairy fat in some quarters, notably as a result of a 2011 study based on the Oslo Health Study​ and research conducted at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute​ in Melbourne, Australia.

After assessing data collected from almost 18,000 subjects, the authors of the former study found that, for men of all ages, frequency of cheese consumption was associated inversely associated with metabolic syndrome and its risk factors.

Published last September in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition​, the Australian research by Nestel et al. found a reduction in risk markers relating to heart disease and diabetes as a result of breakfast diets rich in either cream, butter, cheese, yogurt or low-fat milk.

For 30 years health professionals sought to demonise dairy on the basis of high saturated fat content, Mellentin said, fostering a consumer obsession with low-fat dairy products in nations such as the US, but he added that “the tide appears to be turning”.

Challenging dairy fat perceptions

Asked for his view on comments made recently by Gregory Miller​, president of the US-based Dairy Research Institute (DRI), who said it was important to educate healthcare professionals on the latest dairy research, and that full-fat dairy was at worst “neutral to beneficial"​ in terms of heart disease risk, Mellentin told DairyReporter.com:

“Greg has a good point. The idea that dairy is health beneficial is ‘new news’ for dietitians. It goes against deep-seated beliefs, is a message that runs contrary to the advice many have given over the years, and will be very hard for many of them to take on board.

He added: “The healthcare professions work on a top-down basis, so you begin by informing the cardiovascular specialists at the top of the pyramid and when you have their acceptance the message can cascade down the pyramid.

“Family doctors and dietitians tend to be conservative and slow to accept change - especially in relation to established nutrition beliefs - so these groups have to have the confidence of the guys at the top accepting the change.”

Pondering how long that change might take, Mellentin noted that eggs were demonised as an uhealthy cholesterol source from the 1960s to 1990s, with a common recommendation that people shouldn't consume more than three a week.

He said: “When the science began to show that not only were eggs not harmful, but eating one a day was good for health, the message began to change and it took perhaps 10 years to make the change. I think that's the track that dairy is on.”

Thanks to the internet, Mellentin said consumers now read news from many sources, much of which they would embrace before health professionals. “We should start to see slow growth in full-fat milk and yoghurt, on the back of this, some replacing low/no-fat products, and some overall increase in dairy consumption,”​ he added.

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