Consumer demand is sustaining probiotics sales, despite the blow of the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA's) health claims rejections, say some of industry's main players.
"More and more consumers in Europe are becoming aware of the positive health and nutrition effects of probiotics," said Jérôme Darribeau, regional product manager, Probiotic DS, DuPont Nutrition & Health, maker of Danisco probiotics.
Danone agrees. "We have got very strong brands that we've invested in for years," said Connie Hersch, director of health affairs, Danone UK. "They are already clear in consumers' minds. They tell us they notice an improvement."
Danone has been researching the effects of probiotics for 15 years and has 45 published reviewed clinical trials.
"Paradoxically, the science is getting stronger and consumers are aware the evidence is too strong," said Hersch. "We continue to invest and there are studies going on as we speak. They absolutely have a future."
DuPont's Darribeau thought it was too early to tell what influence further delays from EFSA would have but said the industry was working to provide EFSA's requirements to grant probiotics health claims on digestive health and immunity.
"During the past few years, companies like DuPont have learnt how to run clinical trials and prepare dossiers that will correspond to EFSA's needs and operating mode, so we can see the current lack of approvals as a temporary situation."
Darribeau spoke of an international scientific community that was testing the effects of probiotic formulations on areas such as immune and digestive health, obesity and stool transit. He said DuPont was developing a global collaborative network to gather evidence for health claims on the benefits of probiotics in the gut in humans and animals.
A shift in marketing strategy has helped some firms continue to distinguish their products' benefits, despite having health claims applications rejected, according to Roberta Re, nutrition research manager at Leatherhead Food Research. Re noted Danone's 'Tummy loving care' campaign for Activia, with its less specific campaigns such as 'Love your gut week'.
"This only works because it comes on the back of 20 years of educating consumers about probiotics," said Re. "Would the next generation get this message without the marketing history?"
But Danone remained confident for the future.
"This is not an end. There's so much interest in this area," said Hersch. "EFSA has now realised that this is a learning process.
"At Danone we have proven the health benefits. There is absolutely no doubt," says Hersch. "It's EFSA's regulatory process that needs work."
The value of the food and drink probiotic consumer products market represents one of the fastest growing sectors in functional foods, according to Euromonitor data. Global sales are predicted to grow by 6.4% from $23bn today to $32bn by 2015. Sales are predicted to rise by 3.4% in western Europe and 13.9% in eastern Europe.