Danone’s Activia is the leader in the probiotics craze and functional food industry. It encompasses a type of nutrition that is consumed not only for pleasure, but also for its medicinal qualities. Through both direct and indirect methods, Activia has made a series of claims indicating different ways that it can benefit human health. There are also certain properties of yogurt in general that help to reduce the risk of many diseases, but these properties do not allow Activia to stand out from the competition, and are not advertised.
Activia and IBS/constipation
Aside from achieving all the benefits of regular yogurts, Activia’s claim to reduce transit time assumes that it targets individuals suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome and constipation.
- However, since both of these conditions are classified as diseases by the FDA and require an FDA health claim approval, Activia has been very cautious about using these words and has instead claimed to improve “slow transit time” (4). According to Activia, the differences between slow transit time and constipation, are that constipation is pathological and takes over 72 hours, whereas slow transit time takes between 48 and 72 hours to pass (5).
- According to a study done in 2005, the prevalence of IBS and constipation within the United States was estimated at being between 10-15% (7). While this is a significant portion of the population, very few individuals are aware that Activia is targeted towards these conditions.
- This claim to increase transit time stems from a series of “scientific proofs” or studies, funded entirely by the company, that have been published on the Activia website. Activia is convinced that the unique strain of Bifidobacterium animalis is primarily responsible (5), because high levels have been detected in human feces. The majority of the studies have analyzed the amounts of the bacteria in stool samples and none have demonstrated other beneficial effects of the bacteria. In one specific study, stool samples were analyzed using a RAPD-DNA analysis, and confirmed the presence of bifidobacterium lactis at post-clinical trail time points (Arunachalam et al. 2000). Although this point demonstrates the fact that the bacteria makes it through the digestive system, it does not demonstrate the beneficial effects of the bacteria.
- In another study by Duez et al. (2000), specific tracking of Bifidobacterium animalis was done by DNA-DNA hybridization and found it to be detected in significant amounts in the feces. This article did not indicate how much yogurt was ingested for the seven days prior to stool analysis, but made it clear that this particular strain was not found in the feces prior to the experiment. Additionally, there were only five female subjects with ages ranging from 20-48 years (Duez et al. 2000). This is a very small subject group with a very large age range, and does not take into account physiological changes that occur with age.
- Perhaps then, it can be accepted that Bifidobacterium animalis does indeed pass through the digestive system and survive into the feces. However, one must wonder why this occurs and what other effects are taking place in the body when these bacteria are consumed in such large quantities.
Activia and weight loss
- Activia has repeatedly advertised the “washboard-flat, tiny-waisted” model in the canary-yellow workout clothes (4), who has just returned from some form of physical activity. The arrow pointing downwards on her stomach, is meant to indicate the easier passage of food through her system, but instead implies food that will pass right through the system, playing on the female desire to feel thin. While this is simply an implication in Canada and the US, Activia is clearly associated with weight loss outside of North America.
- European Activia ads consist of a parade of skinny twenty year olds in tight jeans, flaunting perfect bodies and an active lifestyle. This is an interesting concept considering their “scientific studies” published on their own website have only worked with elderly females in very small sample sizes (4).
- Adding fibre to diets is also a great way to experience satiety and regulate levels of food consumption. Fibre is helpful for those intending to lose weight and is recommended that 25 and 35g be ingested each day (5). Activia yogurt does not meet the FDA requirements (9) in order to be considered a significant source of fibre, however, numerous consumer articles are promoting Activia’s weight loss capability based on its fibre content. “I began eating Activia with breakfast on a regular basis about 6 weeks ago and I love it. The extra fiber has helped me loose weight by helping me feel full until lunch…(10)” With less than 2g of fibre per 125g serving of yogurt, it is hardly a source of “extra fiber”. Nonetheless, it is evident how this product has been marketed differently than its original intention.
- Still, in its first year on the market, Activia sales topped $130 million, just by targeting the female stomach through its advertisements for undefined digestive comfort, and its clear implications in stomach weight loss (4).
Activia and Hypertension
- Aside from achieving a reduced transit time, Activia has many other health benefits that are not as evidently marketed. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet was developed by the National Heart, Lung and Blood institute in an attempt to regulate blood pressure by dietary means. It requires consuming numerous servings of fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products in order to reduce high blood pressure (11). Activia has created a fat-free line of the same flavored yogurts that fits perfectly into the DASH diet for hypertension (4). Therefore, Activia has the potential to contribute to lowering high blood pressure.
Activia and Osteoporosis
- While the nutritional content of the yogurt varies with the flavor you consume, calcium levels within a cup of Activia average around 15% of the daily recommended allowance (12). Calcium is essential for building strong healthy bones, and can reduce the risk of osteoporosis later in life. However, the calcium content of a food source is only as good as the vitamin D levels, since vitamin D is known to enhance the absorption of calcium by stimulating calbindin protein transcription (13). Vitamin D levels within a 100g cup of plain vanilla Activia yogurt are 2% of the Recommended Dietary Intake (12).
- A comparison of commercial yogurts done by Canadian Living magazine, clearly indicates that many cheaper yogurts offer significantly more calcium and over five times more vitamin D than Activia yogurt for the same serving size (14). While this may be more a property of yogurt in general and not any brand specifically, Activia yogurt certainly cannot boast bone-strengthening properties.
Activia and CVD
- Many newer flavors of Activia yogurt are coming prepacked with muesli; a whole-grain breakfast cereal with rolled oats, wheat flakes, raisins, pecans and dry coconut (12). Generally, muesli is added to yogurts to increase the fiber content of the food and increase the bulk and softening of stools through the digestive system. As fiber moves through the digestive tract, it can carry dietary cholesterol and increase its excretion from the body, thus lowering the risk of atherosclerosis. The FDA allows 1.7g per serving of pure soluble fibre and 0.75g of pure oat or barley in order to claim prevention from cardiovascular disease (9). Activia yogurt only contains 2g of unspecified fibre in its muesli product, and therefore is not a significant source of fibre and does not offer risk reduction in terms of heart disease.
Activia and Lactose-Intolerance
- All yogurts contain two types of bacterial cultures: Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilis. In addition to these two lactose-digesting enzymes, Activia yogurt contains their special Bifidobacterium animalis strain that has extra digestive benefits. Therefore, consumption of Activia is also helpful for individuals suffering from lactose intolerance.
INTENDED TARGET GROUP
Probiotic yogurts have claimed to prevent a variety of conditions, and exert a number of benefits for both the body and the skin. While women may be more receptive to these benefits, Activia has taken their advertising to a whole new level and now uses young women and celebrities, such as Jamie Lee Curtis, to endorse their product.
Activia and women
- Activia yogurt targets the female stomach based on its statements that “transit time is longer in women than in men and increases with age” (5). According to the Department of Health and Human Services, statistics may indicate that over 75% of IBS sufferers are women, however, women may just be more likely to report their symptoms to their doctors, and men may be equally susceptible to the disease (8). This theory not only speaks for IBS sufferers, but also those experiencing constipation and other digestive disorders.
- Judging from commercials, one would assume that Activia is geared towards middle-aged females who lead active lifestyles. Men and children are welcome to consume Activia regularly, but do so for enjoyment, not for health benefits. Interestingly, the studies published and funded by Danone used a subject population mainly consisting of elderly females (60 years +).
- Arunachalam et al. (1999), showed that the population of bifidobacteria in the human intestinal tract was stable until older age. Once elderly, then the populations of bifidobacteria began to decrease. Production of organic acids and a reduction of pH contributes to an accelerated transit time through the intestinal tract (Arunachalam et al. 1999). Elderly subjects were the target of many clinical trials because immune functions tend to decline with age. When people age, they experience several gastrointestinal changes, including reduced intestinal motility which may cause constipation (Cavuela et al. 2001). People with slow transit time benefited from having bifidus milk with DN-173 010 to significantly increase their transit time (Cavuela et al. 2001). Since transit time tends to decrease with age, it is evident that benefits would be noted on elderly individuals. From this information, it can be assumed that Activia is targeted to an elderly population.
- The question remains, who is Activia intended for? Is it geared towards elderly females, those seeking weight loss, or perhaps those men and women suffering from a “slow transit time”? Increasingly more reviews and critiques are labeling it as a marketing scheme, deliberately targeting the insecurities of the female body. A spokesman for Danone has admitted to aiming at women, however, his reasoning was simply because women tend to do household grocery shopping (4). When the question was posed in the FAQ section of their website, the answer was simple; “Activia is suitable for everyone” (15).
Activia on a Larger Scale- Are there any benefits?
- The comparison done by Canadian Living Magazine, outlines the nutritional differences in a 100g serving of the leading brands of commercial yogurts (14). Aside from the lack of calcium and vitamin D, Activia yogurt contains significantly larger amounts of sugar and fat, and more than twice the amount of calories than other brands by Astro and Yoplait. While Activia includes 15g of sugar, 4g of fat and 110 calories per 100g serving, Yoplait Source contains 7g of sugar, 0g of fat and 50 calories per 100g serving at half the cost (14). From a nutritional perspective, there are no benefits to consuming Activia yogurt when the competition includes all the same nutrients for less than half the price.