Immune support needs spell opportunity for healthy dairy snacks

November 17, 2021

Sharon Gerdes

Americans are snacking more often. The NPD Group notes that U.S. consumers added 25 between-meal snacking occasions per capita in the five years ending in 2020 (from 505 occasions in 2015 to 530 in 2020).

One strategy for creating healthy dairy snacks is to start with a sound nutritional base, then add a functional ingredient that capitalizes on current market demand. A great example is adding probiotics to boost the immune system.

Defining healthy snacks

In 1993, FDA first announced guidelines for using the term “healthy.” On May 6, 2021, the organization announced a public process to update the definition of “healthy” and to develop a front-of-pack symbol for products that qualify for the “healthy” nutrient content claim.

FDA’s requirements for bearing a “healthy” nutrient content claim include specific criteria for nutrients to limit in the diet (including total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium), as well as requirements for nutrients to encourage (including a good source — 10% daily value — of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein and fiber). The criteria were updated in 2016 to encourage intakes of mono- and polyunsaturated fats and to include good sources of potassium and vitamin D. Many dairy-based snacks meet or exceed these criteria.

Portion control allows healthy snacks to limit total calories and sugar. USDA Smart Snack Standards for school lunches limit snacks to a maximum of 200 calories. That’s a useful target for most individuals.

The USDA Smart Snacks school lunch guidelines also limit total sugar to less than 35% of weight. In a 2021 survey, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) found that 72% of consumers are trying to limit or avoid sugar.

An immune boost

According to IFIC, consumer focus has shifted away from nutrients to avoid and toward the presence of healthful components. Adding probiotics and prebiotics provides an opportunity for dairy to capitalize on the ongoing popularity of immune support, as Americans continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. A study by the International Probiotics Association found that the No. 1 reason consumers purchased probiotics in 2020 was to support the immune system.

The International Association for Prebiotics and Probiotics provided the following summary on the topic: “Probiotics that are already shown to be effective against other viral upper respiratory tract infections may have promise for COVID-19 (either for preventing infection or enhancing recovery). Probiotics or prebiotics could be useful adjuncts to vaccination. A scientific rationale exists for maintaining gut microbiota diversity in order to reduce the development of diseases which, as ‘underlying health conditions,’ may result in more severe COVID-19 outcomes.”

Creating a winning healthy dairy snack means keeping up with evolving nutrition science and fickle consumer preferences. Frozen yogurt with probiotics is a great example.

“Making our product as healthy as possible has been a journey,” says Kristin Harlander, owner of frozen yogurt company Mixmi Brands, Fridley, Minn. “We removed corn syrup and carrageenan, and formulated Mixmi froyo to be as low in sugar as possible, but still taste good.

“Our frozen yogurt comes in six flavors and meets the USDA ‘Smart Snack’ definition,” she adds. “A 60-gram serving has only 90 calories and is a good source of dietary fiber. We like to say, ‘healthy gut, happy you’. Mixmi contains six live and active cultures, including Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12, whichhas been associated with benefits in the areas of gastrointestinal health and immune health.”

Unfortunately, the proposed new FDA front-of-pack label symbol might inadvertently omit some healthy dairy foods such as cheese because of total and saturated fat content. Healthy diets can and should include a variety of foods.

Sharon Gerdes is a Certified Food Scientist and author who writes extensively about dairy’s role in health and wellness. Learn more at http://sharongerdes.com.

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Sharon Gerdes is the Health and Wellness editor of Dairy Foods. She is a Certified Food Scientist and author who writes extensively about dairy’s role in health and wellness. Learn more at http://sharongerdes.com.