While several yogurts – including Chobani’s new protein-packed ‘Complete’ range, General Mills’ :ratio line, and Danone’s Oikos Pro, Triple Zero and Two Good products – now feature ‘no added sugar’ claims, these products still contain some naturally-occurring sugar (lactose) from dairy milk.
Even ultra-filtered dairy milk from fairlife, for example, still contains a small amount of naturally occurring sugar (6g), as the filtration process doesn't remove 100% of the lactose (milk sugar). Any remaining lactose is then broken down into the simple sugars glucose and galactose by adding the lactase enzyme to ensure fairlife's products are still lactose-free.
‘We've been working on this for about a year, because it's hard to do’
Chobani president Peter McGuinness did not share how Chobani eliminated all of the naturally occurring milk sugar in its new Chobani Zero range, but told FoodNavigator-USA that non-fat milk is first ultra-filtered to remove most of the lactose, while selected yogurt cultures then effectively eat or “fully consume” any remaining sugar. (Danone North America has adopted a similar approach in its Two Good range, although this still contains 2g sugar.)
Chobani then adds allulose - a tooth-friendly rare sugar with the texture and bulk of regular sugar that has been steadily gaining in popularity following the FDA’s decision to exclude it from the total and added sugars declarations on the Nutrition Facts panel - and the high intensity natural sweeteners monk fruit and stevia extract (Reb M).
Found naturally in plants such as figs and raisins, allulose is produced on a commercial scale via a complex, multi-step process typically starting with corn starch, and is in high demand because it has 70% of the sweetness of sucrose but only 0.4 calories per gram.
As a result, Chobani Zero has just 60 calories per 5.3oz cup - the lowest calorie count in the segment, claimed McGuinness - but still has 11-12g protein, depending on the flavor.
“We've been working on this for about a year, because it's hard to do.”
While allulose still counts as ‘carbs’ on food labels (Chobani Zero has 5g carbs, although it contains 0g sugar), allulose is metabolized differently than table sugar, and doesn’t raise blood glucose or insulin, making it a potentially attractive sweetener for consumers watching their blood sugar.
Allulose has garnered a lot of interest from formulators seeking to replicate the sensory and functional properties of sugar without the calories, and now features in brands from Kashi Go keto cereal and Magic Spoon to Nick’s ice cream (pic credit: Nicks Ice Cream).
According to Label Insight (now part of NielsenIQ) however, it's still relatively unusual to see it in products, although this is expected to change: "Currently in the Label Insight database of about 430,000 food and beverage products, only 276 contain the ingredient allulose. These 276 products primarily include protein & energy bars, ice creams, candies, cookies, and other various desserts and snacks."
60 calories, 0g sugar, lactose-free
Consumers recognize the nutrition in dairy, said McGuinness, but they are also paying closer attention to its sugar content (an 8oz serving of dairy milk naturally contains about 12g of milk sugar).
"So we said, 'Hey, if we can come up with a zero sugar yogurt that's lactose free with only 60 calories – the lowest in the category – that still has 11 to 12 grams of protein, plus it has billions of probiotics, and it’s natural, well that's [consistent with Chobani's philosophy of] better food for more people.'”
Regular Chobani yogurts have around 14g sugar, Chobani’s ‘Less Sugar’ range has around 9g, while high-protein Chobani Complete has around 6-7g, said McGuinness, who said Chobani Zero was differentiated both within Chobani’s portfolio, and the yogurt category as a whole.
“They are all quite differentiated. Less Sugar is not cannibalizing our core range, which is still growing in the double digits year on year although it’s been on the market for 13 years. Chobani Less Sugar has been on the market for two and a half years and it's doing well.
“Then for Chobani Complete, we’re not really marketing that as low in sugar, although it has no added sugar, it’s all about the protein and fiber, and probiotics. So, Chobani Zero is something entirely different: on the packaging, we're really homing in on the zero sugar and popping the 60 calories and lactose free [attributes].”
‘We're innovating from a position of strength’
Chobani Zero Sugar is the latest in a series of recent innovations at Chobani, which has launched a flurry of new products in recent years, from ready to drink coffee to probiotic yogurts, shakes, fermented beverages, the protein- and fiber-packed Chobani Complete range, oatmilks and dairy creamers.
McGuinness stressed Chobani’s core yogurt portfolio also is performing well, buoyed in part by a resurgence of growth in the yogurt category, which has been amplified by COVID-19 (as more food consumption has shifted towards the home) but was evident well before the pandemic hit.
“We're innovating from a position of strength. The base business is strong. It's not like we're innovating out of a core decline to chase growth. We didn’t need to launch Chobani Zero, but it’s our responsibility as a category leader to bring solutions to the category we want to continue to grow.”
Overall US retail yogurt sales up 2.5% in year to May 29, 2021; Chobani yogurt sales were up 7.4%
In the year to May 29, 2021, Chobani's US retail sales of yogurt were up 7.4% vs category growth of 2.5% (Nielsen Total US aAOC), he said.
While we’re now lapping the early weeks of the pandemic and comparables are getting tough for many packaged food companies (who are also dealing with cost inflation), Chobani’s numbers have remained solid, he said.
“We're growing two to three times the [rate of the] category, and we're growing through three times the rate of the competition, and all of our key platforms are growing.”
Volume growth is coming from new customers and heavier buying from existing customers, he said, adding: “More people are buying Chobani and loyal customers are also buying more, so we’re selling more multipacks and multi-serve products.”
As more people are vaccinated and resume ‘normal’ activities, he said: “We're seeing no signs of slowing. We have a new baseline as I think healthier habits have been formed...”
Ingredients (Chobani Zero Sugar mixed berry): Ultra-filtered nonfat milk, water, skim milk, allulose, contains 2% or less of: natural flavors, tapioca flour, citrus fiber, vegetable juice concentrate (for color), guar gum, sea salt, stevia leaf extract (reb m), monk fruit extract, citric acid, enzyme, cultures. 6 live and active cultures: s. thermophilus, l. bulgaricus, l. acidophilus, bifidus, l. casei, and l. rhamnosus.
Chobani collaborates with UNSTUCK to help secure jobs for refugees
Chobani has also launched Greek Yogurt Mango & Cream, a collaboration with UNSTUCK, an initiative from the Tent Partnership for Refugees (started by Chobani’s founder Hamdi Ulukaya in 2016), which aims to help people who have been forced to flee their home countries.
The collaboration sources mango from suppliers committed to employing refugees who have fled Venezuela to escape violence, political repression, and economic collapse.
"Our goal is to create a coalition of businesses – starting with food and beverage companies like Chobani, our pilot partner – that will make and sell UNSTUCK co-branded products. We want to bring more brands on board to help us make an even greater impact," said Nick O'Flaherty, director of UNSTUCK.
“This is not a typical charity product, we are not making a donation, but instead the purchase of the product inherently provides jobs for refugees working at our fruit suppliers," added Chobani's chief innovation officer Niel Sandfort.