WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Dannon yogurt had a secret it didn’t want you to know. Until recently.
Its Danimals Smoothies, a line of yogurt drinks in Technicolor packaging for the pint-sized set, have gotten a little bit healthier. Since February, Dannon has been selling the smoothies with 25 percent less sugar. And hardly anyone seems to have noticed — just as Dannon had hoped.
Deciding not to trumpet a healthier-for-you move might be puzzling at first, until you consider this: “One thing I have learned is that the main driver of yogurt sales above all is taste,” said Sergio Fuster, senior vice president of marketing at Dannon. “You do not want to send any signal to the consumer that might lead her to believe the taste has changed because she will simply pick up another yogurt — and it may not be ours.”
The margin for error in the realm of taste is small. A mistake could be financially deadly.
Yogurt sales are among the fastest-growing of all food products as a wave of new brands challenges the shelf space allotted to more traditional ones like Dannon, Yoplait and Stonyfield. And Chobani, which is posting sales of more than $1 billion less than 10 years after it was founded, and the other upstarts are aggressively promoting their products for children.
Dannon clearly regards its decision to make such a big reduction in the product’s sugar content — to 10 grams, from 14 — as a way to get ahead in the game. The only indication is in the fine print on the nutrition label, which shows its sugar content is slightly lower.
“Kids are not into nutrition profiles, but moms are,” Fuster said. “We want to shift the discussion away from the quantity of calories, although they are impacted with this change, to talking about the quality of the calories in yogurt, like how much protein it delivers.”
Kathleen Zelman, a registered dietitian who is director of nutrition for WebMD, took a look at the nutrition labels for the product before and after sugar was cut and said it was a step in the right direction, though she wished it delivered more protein.
“There’s no nutritional payback from sugar, so any time you can cut it and still enjoy nutritional goodness like that found in yogurt, I’m thrilled,” Zelman said. “There’s a lot of pressure on sugar these days because of the obesity trends, not that I’m saying it’s the culprit, but we eat too many calories in general and it’s easy to overconsume sugar calories.”
Dannon has reduced sugar in a handful of products before, but never by more than 5 to 10 percent. Reductions of that size merely require subtracting sweetener in small amounts.
But when the company was looking for ways to underscore its commitment to enhancing the healthiness of its products, it decided it needed to do something more dramatic. “We set a target of 25 percent, even though a lot of people said that was too much,” said Thierry Saint-Denis, director of research and development at Dannon.
Reducing sugar by 5 percent is relatively simple, Saint-Denis said, because milk and other components in yogurt can mask the missing sweetness. Such a change has little impact on yogurt’s viscosity and other characteristics.
But eliminating one-quarter of the sweeteners has much bigger consequences, wreaking havoc not only on taste but on texture, acidity and other aspects. “We decided to do it because it would force us to do something we had never done if we were to meet that target,” Saint-Denis said.
To explain the complex science of ingredient mix, Saint-Denis did a little demonstration at the company’s U.S. headquarters in White Plains, involving cups of two different unsweetened yogurts and big syringes filled with liquid sweetener. At the start, one yogurt was tart and acidic, the other more bland — and it quickly became clear that it would take markedly less sugar syrup to arrive at a sweet taste with the bland flavor than with the tart and acidic one. So one crucial factor to less sugar is lower acidity.
The experiment lasted less than a half-hour, but achieving the mix of bacterial cultures that produced a yogurt lower in acidity took two years and involved moving the company’s research and development department from Texas to its New York headquarters.
Danone, the French parent of Dannon, maintains a library of some 4,000 bacterial cultures that it uses to create its yogurts. The cultures, made from combinations of Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, act on the lactose in milk, fermenting it to produce lactic acid, which gives yogurt its tanginess and texture.
Saint-Denis and his team experimented with combinations of cultures but had trouble creating a yogurt that had the same consistency, flavor and “mouth feel” as the original Smoothies product when they reduced sugar by 25 percent.
“It is relatively simple to produce less lactic acid, which is what gives yogurt its tartness,” he said. “But then there is not a lot of yogurt taste.”
Eventually, Dannon had to reach beyond its extensive collection of cultures, tapping an outside library for two of the strains that produced the winning combination.
It took two years — two years and one month, to be exact — to get the product to market, eight to 10 months to achieve the proper fermentation, two months or so to get the right balance of flavorings, two more months of fiddling. The remainder of the time was spent calming the fears of Fuster, the senior vice president of marketing, and his team and preparing production.
“Especially with kids, they like something or they don’t,” Saint-Denis said. “They really like the existing product, and we didn’t want to change that.”
So far, Fuster said, there has been no impact on sales of Smoothies, which, he said, continue to climb.
“We believe this is the way to develop the product in the U.S., where it’s never quite clear what the role of yogurt is,” Fuster said. “Where I’m from, the first solid food you get as a baby is yogurt, and pediatricians recommend it. So Smoothies is important to us in developing new consumers from early on in their lives.”