Probiotics have captured the imagination of consumers in recent years, thanks in part to advertising campaigns animating them as the 'friendly bacteria' that form part of the gut's natural flora.
While probiotics have been linked by researchers to several health benefits, such as immune health, digestion, and allergy alleviation, there have been some concerns about whether some products on the market actually contain sufficient quantities of live bacteria to do any good by the time they reach consumers' guts.
The reason is that probiotics are remarkably sensitive little creatures, which struggle to survive the rigours of processing, transport and storage, and the perilous journey through the gastrointestinal tract to the gut.
But microencapsulation methods under development may protect the bacteria through these trials to ensure they arrive alive where they required.
Moreover, they let companies consider other product types beyond traditional dairy carriers, which have a short, chilled shelf-life, like biscuits, cereals and chocolate.
In collaboration with the University of Reading, Leatherhead is giving industry players to opportunity to come in on a collaborative research effort that could provide them with the know how to differentiate their products in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
Food products typically claim to contain probiotics if they have 10 to-the-power-of-nine colony-forming units per serving.
Last January consumer watchdog Which? questioned the efficacy of many probiotic products after its sister publication Drug and Therapies Bulletin conducted an investigation of 12 products in the UK market and found that none gave the level of bacteria it contained.
It also said that the level of research on the purported benefits was "patchy", and found that eight of the 12 products had contained more than 10g of sugar per 100g.
Some companies have been working hard at ways to protect the bacteria - innovation that goes hand-in-hand with new product development.
For instance Lallemand, under its Lal'Food division, has developed a way to use coated probiotics in chocolate, which could be used as a filling in biscuits, nutrition bars, or chocolate drops for addition to breakfast cereals.
Crucially, the bacteria need to be added after cooking as they do not survive heat. Moreover, the chocolate vector is said to be ideal since chocolate processing does not require much processing.
DSM Food Specialities recently launched a chocolate bar called Attune containing its Lafti probiotic brand in the US, said to contain five times the amount of probiotics as yoghurt.
Korean company Cell Biotech announced at the end of last year that it is establishing operations in Denmark to expand use of its dual-coated probiotics in Europe market - particularly in new, non-dairy food categories.
And just last week, research from Greece published in LWT- Food Science and Technology indicated that apple pieces are promising carriers for probiotic bacteria.
Leatherhead's four-stage project will focus on survivability of probiotics. The first stage will use standard microbiological enumeration techniques to assess viability of commercially available products during claimed shelf lives.
The researchers will then simulate gastric contents and bile acids, to assess probiotic viability ion the gastrointestinal system; those that survive will be assessed for their effectiveness on gut microflora using gut model systems.
Finally, food samples will be prepared using the probiotics. The effectiveness of these products on the gut will be investigated, as well as their impact on the foods' texture and quality.
Leatherhead is accepting expressions of interest in its project until February 19. For more information contact Dr Evangelia Komitopouou