On both fronts Califia Farms has its work cut out for it. Many competitors already are active in the probiotics and drinkable yogurt spaces, and there is widespread consumer confusion and misinformation about probiotics.
Still, the company’s CEO Greg Steltenphol told FoodNavigator-USA that he is “pretty darn excited” about the “breakthrough” dairy-free Yogurt Drinks, which are made with a distinct trio of 10 billion live, active probiotic colony forming units. The backbone of the Califia Culture Blend is the BB-12 strain which is one of the most documented bifidobacteria and well known for its efficacy in digestive and immune health.
In addition, the drinks, which are available in single- and multi-serve containers and come in four flavors, are “batch fermented” in the almond and coconut milk bases, so that the probiotics are “part of the whole food, versus being fortified and added at the end of the fermentation,” according to the company.
The drinks not only offer functional health benefits, but they “stand up to mainstream taste attributes, which is a breakthrough” given all the difficulties in formulating plant-based alternatives to dairy, Steltenphol said.
“It is not easy” to make a plant-based yogurt, because unlike dairy milk, which “gives you whole package to work with out of the gate … plant-milk has to be creatively designed,” he said. “If you follow our principle, which is to use whole food ingredients, then the problem with plant-based ingredients is they have a lot of other components which are not usually that friendly to the palate in a liquid format. In other words, they have too much vegetable fiber, which contributes off-flavors or they might be too heavy on the carbohydrate component and not have enough things that the probiotics like to consume.”
As if this weren’t challenging enough, the drinks also are low in sugar, which is typically what the “critters” like to eat, but which people increasingly are turning away from, Steltenpohl said.
While he wouldn’t disclose how Calfiia did it, he said the company did find a way that “keeps the bugs happy and allows them to consume something besides sugar, which was a big breakthrough for us.” This allowed the company to create an unsweetened option that fits with Califia’s larger effort to reduce sugar across its portfolio.
Breaking apart from the competition
Formulating the products is only part of the battle for launching a successful new line, Steltenpohl said. Another significant aspect is getting them on shelves and cutting through the competitive clutter.
“Our playbook in this is do for this category what we did to the almond milk category – that would be a dream scenario,” he said. However, he added, it also will be a challenge “because this space is a little noisier than when we went into almond milk.”
He explained when Califia launched its almond milk line, there were really only two other notable players in the space, and they were shelf stable and not placed in the refrigerator section next to dairy products like Califia was.
In the probiotic beverage space, however, there is competition from kefir, kombucha and large dairy-based yogurt manufacturers that are starting to push into the drinkable yogurt space.
But to standout, Steltenpohl says he is offering a product that is of very high quality in a packaging that will appeal not only to the natural consumer but the mainstream shopper as well. The company also will rely heavily on social media marketing, demonstrations and driving initial trial through “small conversations,” he said.
Setting the record straight on probiotics
The launch comes at a time when more Americans are waking up to the connection between a healthy gut and a healthy body and the role that probiotics can play in attaining both. However, there also is a lot of confusion and misinformation about what types of probiotics are beneficial, in what amounts and in what forms.
“The US market is in the very early stage of understanding probiotics. So, I think any brand that seriously enters the category has to take on some custodianship of education,” Steltenphol said. He added that the discussion around probiotics “is full of buzz words and … something like false promises.”
Whether or not these false promises are intentional isn’t clear. But, many brands simply claim to have probiotics in their product, but when pressed might not know what strains or how many CFUs are present and therefore can’t know if they will help consumers achieve the goals they want. Consumers for their part often see simple claims such as ‘contains probiotics’ or ‘with live probiotic cultures’ and simply assume there will be a health benefit.
Steltenphol said educating consumers is difficult because “we can only go so far on the label because we are marketing a food product and not a supplement, and we have guard rails around everything we can do on our website or on our label.”
However, he said, Califia is trying by engaging with nutritionists and working with the media to generate public awareness around the type of questions consumers should ask and companies should be able to answer, such as are the probiotics in a kefir or kombucha or yogurt sufficient and effective or do consumers still need to take a supplement.
Califia ensured it could answer these questions about its yogurt drinks before it launched.
“We address this on several fronts. One is that there is a credible, measurable amount of the specific strains of probiotics, mainly BB 12, which are in the package all the way through the shelf life,” and the other was selecting strains that have been identified and clinically tested for efficacy in the digestive and immune system, Steltenphol said.
“We are just trying to take a fact based approach, together with an attractive and unusual package design to move forward sensibly to present our product in a fresh way to consumers,” he added.