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Foods appeal to America's appetite for "good' bacteria

Here's what the food industry wants you to snack on in 2004: bacteria.

In an effort to create a market for products promising healthier intestines, some dairy and beverage companies are loading up products with ingredients called "probiotics," or strains of bacteria that claim health benefits. And, in a new twist, breakfast cereals, smoothies, energy bars and other health foods are getting a dose of "prebiotics," which are essentially food for the bacteria.

Probiotics and prebiotics, the companies claim, promote better digestion, general health and even a stronger immune system.

Two weeks ago, Dannon started rolling out to mainstream grocery stores a drink called DanActive. Previously sold mostly in health-food stores under the name Actimel, DanActive contains 10 times more beneficial bacteria than yogurt and naturally strengthens the body's defense system, says Dannon, a unit of Groupe Danone.

Horizon Organic launched two new lines of yogurt in August 2003 that include a prebiotic called Nutraflora. The dairy products and juices company also adds probiotics to its line of cottage cheese and sour cream, and says it plans to add Nutraflora to more products in 2004. Lids on Stonyfield Farm yogurt containers in stores now declare that the product contains inulin, a prebiotic.

Fifteen new foods and supplements described as probiotic were introduced in 2003, up from 10 the year before and five in 2001, according to market analyst Mintel Information Center.

The food industry is pushing good-bacteria food at a time when scientists are conducting more research on the role of beneficial bacteria in treating illnesses, such as eczema in infants or diarrhea in post-operative patients who have been taking heavy antibiotics. But the evidence that probiotics can ward off illness or make a healthy person even healthier is a lot flimsier. Part of the problem is that it is hard to measure claims that a particular food makes you "healthier" or "stronger."

There are no governmental bodies or major health organizations, like the Food and Drug Administration or the American Dietetic Association, that recommend that people take any quantity of either prebiotics or probiotics.

Other countries have been obsessed with good bacteria for years. Credit for their discovery is often given to Nobel Prize winner Elie Metchnikoff, a Russian scientist who in the early 1900s hypothesized that certain strains of bacteria could increase longevity and improve health. In the 1960s, Japanese companies began selling probiotic supplements and foods; both are now very popular in Japan and Europe, where little vials of the bacteria are sold in the dairy case at many grocery stores.

DanActive, the drink Dannon is now marketing in U.S. grocery chains, is a blockbuster in Europe and Latin America, where it's still called Actimel. It is a $500-million-a-year business for Groupe Danone, representing about 8 percent of its dairy sales, according to a market report by J.P. Morgan. Stonyfield Farm is majority owned by Groupe Danone.

In the past 10 years, European and Japanese researchers started fortifying goodies such as cookies and candy, as well as bread, with prebiotics. These carbohydrates aren't digested by humans but instead travel to the colon where they become food for good bacteria in the gut. Stonyfield Farm and Horizon yogurts, for instance, have pre- and probiotics in them, which give the innards a dose of good bugs and food to help them thrive.

Companies say it has been hard to create a market for pre- and probiotic foods in the U.S. because Americans are too squeamish. "The U.S. consumer doesn't like talking about the word "gut,' " said Sally Brain, a marketing executive for Sensus America, a Monmouth Junction, N.J., company that markets inulin, a prebiotic.

Another hurdle: "Americans think that all bacteria should be shot on sight," said Julian Mellentin, the publisher of New Nutrition Business, a newsletter for the functional foods industry, which markets food products that promise health benefits. He estimates that annual probiotic dairy sales in the U.S. total $150-million, compared with $3.7-billion in Europe.

Hoping to overcome the yecch factor, companies are working hard to market the health benefits. For example, the prebiotic inulin adds fiber to foods that ordinarily don't have any, like yogurt, and studies show that prebiotics can help the body absorb calcium more effectively. Some companies believe the low-carb diet craze will help drive interest in prebiotics because the diet often lacks fiber and prebiotics can put it back in without adding carbohydrates, Brain said.

Most yogurts, including those made from soy, contain at least some quantity of probiotics, though it's legal to sell yogurt that doesn't contain any. Many yogurts carry the National Yogurt Association's "live and active cultures" seal, which means that they have at least 100-million cultures per gram. For frozen yogurt to qualify for the seal, it must contain 10-million cultures per gram. The National Yogurt Association advises on its Web site that many yogurt-covered candies and pretzels and yogurt-flavored salad dressings don't contain live and active cultures.

Before consumers rush out to buy probiotic and prebiotic enhanced foods, it's important to understand that "the science is still evolving," said Mary Ellen Sanders, a microbiologist who consults with food and supplement companies about probiotics. The biggest challenge is that there are about 20 strains of beneficial bacteria on the market, with uneven research touting different effects. Food companies, however, may tell consumers only that a product "contains live active cultures" or has "acidophilus," a common probiotic.

Sanders said that despite the questions surrounding the benefits of probiotics and prebiotics, she eats plenty of yogurt herself and feeds it to her kids about twice a day. "I try to replace ice cream with it," she said. Another approach to figuring out whether a product delivers on its promises to help with intestinal upset, she said, is to simply eat it every day for a couple of weeks and see if there are results.