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Food makers giving new life to products with healthy lactobacilli

Products including Kirin Holdings Co.-developed plasma lactobacilli are seen.

If you're seeing more food items on your local store shelves boasting of their lactobacilli -- "friendly" bacteria that produce lactic acid from sugar -- it's no accident. Food makers are adding the little critters to everything from potato chips to ice cream and ready-to-eat pasta dishes to boost their appeal to Japan's increasingly health-conscious consumers.

    There are over 300 naturally occurring strains of lactobacillus, and though they are perhaps best known for turning milk into yogurt or cheese, they are also key players in making miso paste, Japanese pickled vegetables, and other fermented foods. Lactobacilli are also among the "good" symbiotic bacteria in our intestines, and regularly taking more in our food is known to improve digestion, help with certain internal complaints, and improve immunity.

    It was with this health angle in mind that food and beverage firms Kirin Holdings Co. and Morinaga Milk Industry Co. set about designing their own lines of lactobacilli, now being added to new brands hitting the shelves this month. The hope is that the friendly bacteria-laced items will bring some fresh life to the firms' earnings.

    Kirin Holdings President Yoshinori Isozaki told reporters at a recent news conference, "With (Japan's) population declining, the 'tummy business' of selling beer and other drinks is in a quite severe state. We have to gradually pivot to the health domain."

    And the company made one of its first moves in that pivot with the Sept. 1 debut of its "iMuse" product series, containing a Kirin-developed strain of plasma lactobacilli. In the next 10 years, the firm hopes annual revenue from lactobacillus-related businesses will reach 23 billion yen.

    Live cultures of lactobacilli are vulnerable to heat, and so had generally been limited to use in chilled foods like yogurt. However, plasma lactobacilli that have been killed with heat can be made into an odorless, tasteless powder that can then be added to processed and dry foods including confections.

    In addition to continuing to create and market its own line of lactobacillus products, Kirin Holdings also plans to develop new food items with partner firms, the first of which will be "Poitto" nut and salt-flavored potato chips, with Calbee Inc. The chips will debut as a convenience store-only product on Oct. 2 this year, and marketed as a healthy snack.

    Morinaga, meanwhile, has been selling its own heat-treated "Shield Lactobacillus" to other firms as a raw ingredient since 2014. It is now used by over 150 firms, and can be found in products as diverse as Nagatani Co. miso soup, Takanofoods Co. "natto" fermented soy beans, and Nippon Flour Mills Co. frozen pasta dishes.

    Morinaga launched its own line of lactobacillus foods called "Nyusankin to kurasou" (Let's live with lactobacilli) on Sept. 1. It also began adding Shield Lactobacillus to its ice cream and three other items, which started going on sale Sept. 4. All told, the company is aiming for an annual 3 billion yen in Morinaga-branded lactobacilli food sales.

    Meanwhile, the market for foods including the bacteria is expanding as Japanese consumers grow more health conscious. According to TPC Marketing Research statistics, the market for lactobacilli products including yogurt, drinks and health foods has grown by 30 percent over the past five years, and is estimated to have reached 654.1 billion yen in 2016.

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