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Culture Club : New Seal for Yogurt Products

April 29, 1993|From The Washington Post

The National Yogurt Assn. says it is afraid you may not be able to tell which yogurt products contain beneficial bacterial cultures and which do not. And so, it has created a seal producers can use on their packaging that will clear up the confusion.

Unfortunately, critics say, the whole thing may be just a marketing ploy. In the first place, most health claims about yogurt are still being researched. So far, the only benefit proven conclusively is that live yogurt cultures can decrease the symptoms of lactose intolerance and help alleviate gastrointestinal discomfort.

Beyond that, there are questions whether the Live & Active Cultures Seal merely duplicates information already found on the label and whether the level of live culture necessary for the seal is significant.

Still, many of the big guns in the yogurt business have already jumped on board. Yoplait and Dannon have decided to display the new logo--a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for fermented milk--on their containers of refrigerated yogurt. Haagen-Dazs frozen-yogurt products also bear the logo, and several more companies are due to join soon.

"We've done a fair amount of consumer research," says Leslie Sarasin, president of the yogurt association. "A significant amount of consumers were interested in knowing what's in their yogurt but didn't know how to tell if it had live and active cultures in it."

The seal program will also help consumers become more aware of the "essential characteristics" of yogurt as opposed to other products outside the category, such as puddings, she says. Plus, in recent years makers of bogus yogurt products such as yogurt-covered candies and nuts have tried to cash in on the cachet of yogurt.

And that, says Sarasin, is unfair to companies whose refrigerated and frozen yogurt products do contain live and active cultures.

Yet most manufacturers already state in fine print whether their products contain the live and active cultures. What's more, it's actually pretty easy for makers of refrigerated yogurts to qualify for the seal.

"There is a possibility that this is making a mountain out of a molehill," says Gary Hirshberg, president of Stonyfield Farms, a yogurt company in Londonberry, N.H., that is not planning to apply for the seal even though its product exceeds the NYA standard.

At this point, the seal's most helpful aspect may be in distinguishing among frozen yogurts. Some of these are simply ice milks with "some powdered cultures thrown in," but they are not fermented, says Rob Byrne, assistant director for product safety and technology for the International Dairy Foods Assn. Although regulations are in the works to establish standards for frozen yogurt, right now there aren't any.

But when it comes to refrigerated yogurts, the seal may be just a marketing tool that will cause confusion rather than alleviate it. This is because most refrigerated yogurts already contain at least the level of live and active cultures set by NYA.

As a result, products that meet the standards but don't bear the new seal could be viewed as inferior and, therefore, placed at a competitive disadvantage.

What's more, firms that belong to the yogurt association don't have to pay an application fee, at least for the first several seals that are approved. (Voting members receive 10 free seals; non-voting members get five.) But non-members must pay $2,500 per seal to apply. Separate seals are needed for each different type of yogurt product, such as nonfat, low-fat, whole milk and aspartame-sweetened, but not for each different flavor.

The government requires that refrigerated yogurts be made with at least Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus , two organisms that convert pasteurized milk into yogurt during fermentation.

But it stops short of setting the level of these cultures that must remain in the finished product. To extend shelf life and reduce tartness, some companies pasteurize yogurt after it is made, which can kill the useful cultures, according to the NYA. (If this is done, "heat-treated" must appear on the label.)

But Clair Hicks, a professor of food science at the University of Kentucky who does research on yogurt formulation, says heat treatment was popular about a decade ago but is no longer widely used.

For a company to qualify for the seal, it must submit data from an independent lab showing that its product not only contains live and active cultures, but at a level of at least 10 million organisms per gram.

Is this a lot? "It's very achievable," says Manfred Kroger, a former yogurt maker in Germany and now a professor of food science at Penn State University who has been studying yogurt for more than 30 years. Kroger adds that the 10 million figure is "a low number considering that yogurts can have up to 100 times that much."

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