KANSAS CITY -- As a more profound disquiet over one’s immunity has driven more interest in the consumption of functional foods and beverages, wellness has become an even higher priority to some consumers due to COVID-19.

Even though consumers are spending a lot more time at home these days, their choices in dairy are reflecting a deeper concern for health and nutrition like never before.

According to Midwest Dairy’s Q4 SWOT analysis report*, processors are staying ahead of the game in the good-for-you category by helping consumers maintain a healthy nutrition plan by marketing dairy’s health benefits. What’s more, is that while dairy provided consumers with a sense of comfort through the unpredictability of 2020, highlighting dairy’s wellness benefits when things start getting back to normal will become even more important for the category to stand out in a competitive market. 

One processor that is getting ahead of the game in the health and wellness arena is Chicago-based Bel Brands USA, subsidiary of the Bel Group, and makers of famed and beloved brand Babybel.

“In the past year, interest in immunity health has certainly spiked, but even prior to the pandemic, we saw an increase in the importance of holistic wellness and consumer demand for products that offer functional benefits fitting into these lifestyle choices,” said Ridhi Barber, senior brand manager for Babybel. “In fact, 48% of parents cite immune health as the reason they give children vitamins, minerals or supplements, but less than 1% of global food and drink launches made immune system claims in the two years prior to February 2020 — and we don’t anticipate this consumer need fading any time soon.”

In line with this trend, the company is introducing the first functional products to its line that offer an easy way for families to get the added nutrients they are looking for in their diets. 

“Our R&D team is always exploring new innovations that can answer growing consumer needs. This year, we are excited to launch a new range of functional products under Babybel called Babybel Plus+,” Ms. Barber said. “Wrapped in our signature red wax, Babybel Plus+ provides families the same taste consumers already know and love, now with an extra dose of  ‘good for you.’”

This range includes two varieties: Babybel Plus+ Probiotic, which contains live and active cultures of the LGG probiotics strain with evidence to suggest immune health benefits when consumed as a part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle; and Babybel Plus+ Vitamins, which provide a source of Vitamins A and B12 — known to support eye health and metabolism, respectively.

When asked how Bel Brands gets ahead of emerging trends, especially in the health and nutrition space, Ms. Barber said that every innovation at Bel is rooted in consumer needs, and the company’s developers are always exploring different innovative ideas. 

“On average, our innovation lead times are between 18 to 24 months, and for Babybel Plus+, we accelerated our typical timeline given that observed demand, which has only exploded in the pandemic era, and is projected to continue to increase in relevance,” she said.

Lactose-Free Forecast

There is an estimated 40 million people in this country who are either lactose-intolerant or lactose-sensitive. That’s 12% of the population. 

“It is an extremely diverse group with people living from coast-to-coast, embedded in any imaginable demographic or cultural community,” said Diana Danoff, brand manager for Sebastopol, Calif.-based Green Valley Creamery, makers of ‘dairy everyone can eat.’  “We want to bring dairy back into the lives of every single person in this community.”

Ms. Danoff said the company is entirely focused on serving the lactose-intolerant community with an ever-expanding line of lactose-free, real dairy products available at every grocery store.  

“When we first came to market, all of our products were certified organic. However, in an effort to serve the broadest base of lactose-intolerant people, we’ve recently launched a full line of affordable and accessible products, including kefir, sour cream, cream cheese and butter,” she said. “We have many other new products in the pipeline for 2021-22. In five years, we expect to have a full line of everyday dairy items available nationwide.”

Ms. Danoff said the market is trending upward in the lactose-free dairy category as it is seeing strong growth across all channels and product categories. 

“Driven by a combination of real-dairy lactose-free products and plant-based products labeled as lactose-free, we know that 40% of US households now use dairy alternatives; 30% of people in those households use them due to dairy/lactose intolerance,” Ms. Danoff said. “Our lactose-free cottage cheese, for example, grew 44% from 2019 to 2020 and our butter, a new item, grew 479% after just one year on the market.”

Ms. Danoff said lactose-free yogurt growth is particularly strong with new entries from Chobani and Siggi’s driving growth in conventional and smaller brands like Forager, Nancy’s and Culina in the natural channel. 

“We’re seeing strong growth in almost all lactose-free and plant-based segments, especially in cheeses both dairy and non-dairy, lactose-free labeled products,” she said. “The expectation is that demand for lactose-free products will continue to increase for some time.”

When asked how Green Valley Creamery gets ahead of emerging trends in the health and nutrition space, Ms. Danoff said the company really listens to the community in which it serves. 

“We listen to our community. People who suffer from lactose intolerance or sensitivity are at the center of everything we do,” she said. “We actively engage with our consumers via social media and through direct contact, and we listen to what they say they need. In addition, we work closely with dieticians, influencers, thought leaders and retailers operating in the health and wellness space.”

Although understanding of lactose sensitivity is growing, unfortunately, Danoff said, most people still don’t understand the cause of their discomfort or they ‘suffer in silence’ and crave an easy way to enjoy dairy, especially in social settings.

“The primary opportunity we see is through raising the educational level on lactose-intolerance and offering that community delicious, real dairy products that can be enjoyed by all,” she said.

*Midwest Dairy collects forecasting data from research partners Mintel, Technomic, IRI, Aimpoint, and others.

This story is featured in the April 2021 issue of Dairy Processing.