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Friday, August 18, 2006

Even Healthier Yogurt - And the Package May Be Just as Good

Most people know that Dannon yogurt is from France. Or is originally from France. Or Spain. And started making yogurt in the 1940s. Or earlier.

I guess most people don't know. I didn't, and I research this stuff.

Anyway, we start with Isaac Carasso, a Greek who saw the popularity of yogurt in the Balkans before World War I. He opened a little yogurt shop in Barcelona, Spain, in 1919. Its name of Danone – little Daniel – came from his young son. Taking advantage of the industrial processes for fermenting yogurt developed at France's Pasteur Institute, he became the first and leading industrial manufacturer of yogurt.

He wisely emigrated to the U.S. to avoid another World War, setting up shop as Dannon Milk Products, Inc., in New York in 1942, the first American yogurt manufacturer. Not an instant success. The company managed to make a whopping 648 half-pints a day. But in 1947 he catered to the American sweet tooth by introducing fruit on the bottom. The rest is history.

Tangled history. Son Daniel had founded Danone in France (aha!) in 1929. Carraso pere sold his American interests shortly after its first flush of success to return to Europe. His Danone brand remained a hit. Eventually he merged Danone with Gervais, the leading fresh cheese business in France (aha!) in 1967, and then in 1973 with BSN (Boussois Souchon Neuvesel), a French company (aha!) who had bought Dannon from the Beatrice conglomerate. In 1994, the whole shebang changed its name to the classic Groupe Danone.

Dannon USA runs the yogurt business in the states. Probably only people who read the company's annual reports know that in 2003 it bought up all the non-employee owned stock of Stonybrook Farms, the largest organic yogurt manufacturer in the world. That's right, megacorp Dannon owns the tony organic label. Stop putting on airs, organicofascists of the world.

(And it owns more than that. Danone agreed earlier this year to up to 20% its stake of Shanghai Bright Dairy & Food Co. Ltd., which merged on August 9 with three other Chinese firms to form Bright Foods (Group) Co. Ltd., China's largest maker of dairy products. Food for you corporate conspiracy theorists. Omnicorp is coming.)

(Groupe Danone is also number two in the world in bottled water – it owns Evian – and owns the venerable British brands of HP and Lea & Perrins sauces.)

Back to dairy products. And France.

On UPI.com, Julia Watson reports from Le Bugue, France, about the future of yogurt, a future already present in much of Europe and one that will arrive in the U.S. soon. A good thing for those with lactose intolerance who want to keep having dairy in their diets.

Across Europe, yogurt has been taken to health-giving heights that would astonish the nomads of the barren steppes. It's not just fruit flavored, or boasting a fuller or lesser fat content. It has been turned into one of the mainstays of the fortified food system, becoming almost a medicine.

If someone says "probiotics" (the new food buzzword indicating the presence of healthy living microorganisms that can help protect the digestive system, in particular from yeast infection or IBS caused by courses of antibiotics), those in the know think yogurt.

The French have been chugging down Danone's Activa -- introduced into the United States in February this year -- since 1987. The makers say that eaten daily for two weeks, the probiotic yogurt can regulate the digestive system by helping to reduce the transit time of food passing through the intestines by up to 40 percent.

One brand popular in Spain contains breast milk bacteria.

Along with spoonable yogurts of varying thicknesses in every country, there are drinkable yogurts, soft-cheese-like yogurts, fermented kefir-type yogurts of the sort solid Russian babushkas have sworn by as a general cure-all for centuries. Some contain ingredients not normally associated with what is plugged in the United States as a dessert, like carrots, cucumber and oats.

Now, some yogurts include agents that have jobs other than tickling the taste buds or persuading consumers they can enjoy something sweet without swallowing too many calories. One contains Tonalin, a fat-reducing agent. Some contain Omega-3 to target cholesterol reduction. Yet more offer energy-boosting and relaxing properties. And others boast an antioxidant quality or offer the beneficial Bifidus active that helps develop flora in the gut.

You don't have to buy a functional probiotic or nutraceutical yogurt to get health benefits. Plain simple yogurt is made by culturing cream and milk or milk alone with live and active cultures, generally Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. By metabolizing with some of the lactose in the milk to make lactic acid, the milk is thickened into yogurt.

But the prime yogurt makers of Europe are looking across the Atlantic to see how the U.S. responds to Danone's Activa. Who know, if enough is eaten, maybe next we'll see the breast milk bacteria variety on the supermarket shelves.

Breast milk bacteria yogurt. I wonder. Is the packaging itself going to be the treat? Suck here for the healthiest and tastiest of snacks? What will marketers in the breast-obsessed U.S. do with this?

Photoshoppers welcome.

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