Danisco's Fabienne Saadane-Oaks told Nutraingredients-USA.com obtaining new strains and characterizing them for their health benefits is one of the main activities for the cultures division, of which she is president.
Its mission has been significantly aided by the genome sequencing of the NCFM strain of probiotic bacterium by scientists from the University of North Carolina, which was published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2005 March 15; 102(11): 3906-3912).
The NCFM strain was acquired by Danisco when the Danish company acquired Rhodia Foods in 2004, a move that spawned the cultures unit.
The researchers identified features within the sequence that are "likely to contribute to the organism's gastric survival and promote interactions with the intestinal mucosa and microbiota".
Saadane-Oaks said that the sequencing of NCFM has "given [Danisco] some good ideas of how to orient research". It is continuing to work on sequencing for other strains, and looking for correlations.
The division's cultures store consists of 10,000 strains (not all probiotic), which must all be screened for what they may offer for food makers - for example flavor, color or health benefits.
She said that it is possible to identify new health benefits beyond gut health, immune health and general well-being, which are now considered mainstream for probiotics, such as allergies and vitamin absorption.
"Correlating the genome as early as possible to functional properties means we can shorten the development time for products and target the right strain from the beginning."
Once the right strain has been selected, Danisco verifies the health benefits first in vitro, then in vitro, in different sectors of the population, different food applications and different countries. This is because the same probiotic strain may have a different effect in infants, in seniors and in people with sensitive stomachs, for instance.
This research is increasingly important as the current regulatory environment around the world means companies are under more and more pressure to provide evidence for the claims made on product labels.
In the US, there are no FDA-approved health claims for probiotics, but Danone's DanActiv is marketed for its immunity enhancing properties, on the back of solid clinical evidence. Lifeway Foods, on the other hand, simply says its probiotic kefirs contain seven active 'friendly' microorganisms.
Europe-wide health claims framework is currently in the works, but in the meantime the degree to which probiotics are marketed with solid health claims depends on the market. In the UK, for instance, Yakult is marketed for digestive health and Actimel for 'supporting the body's natural defenses'.
Saadane-Oaks said that Danisco is ploughing a proportion of its sales revenue back into research, and probiotics are a top priority. The research the company is conducting is a means of preparing for health claims legislation.
"Health claims put pressure on the industry, but it is welcome pressure," she said. "It is important that the consumers feels confident and secure in what they are eating, and it is important for the industry that what is said about probiotics is true.
"The last thing we want is for probiotics to be nothing more than a fad because some company makes false claims."
While preparing health claims may cost dear, in the long term she believes it is worthwhile as they will help grow the market to be much more than a nebulous concept.
It is currently in the midst of a major expansion program which is expected to give it a worldwide capacity similar to that of the leading producer, Chr Hansen.
In October it opened a new 1200 sqm innovation center in Singapore to capture emerging markets in the region. The previous month it announced €3 million investment in ramping up production capacity of freeze-dried cultures at its plant in Sassenge, and increased capacity at its site in Niebüll, Germany, is expected to be operational from the beginning of 2006.
A spokesperson for the company said that demand for cultures in dietary supplements was growing by around 15 per cent, while their use in beverages and probiotics was "developing nicely".