Care for a yogourt soda?

With annual sales of $1.8 billion in Canada, the already sprawling yogourt industry is only getting bigger

It’s a rare honour to be designated “food of the decade,” but yogourt has earned the title for its performance in the dairy aisle of grocery stores. “These are not handed out lightly,” says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group, a global market research agency that bestowed the award. “In the 30 years I’ve been doing this, there has only been one other food that was similar” in its rapid popularity, he says: pizza. And yogourt’s unlikely rise (this is a food made from bacteria, after all) is far from over. “There is still a lot of room to grow,” says Balzer.

Yogourt’s distinction is based on consumption data showing that, over the last 10 years, the average person has taken to eating it twice as often. In 2009, Canadians consumed yogourt 42 times, according to NPD Group, up from 20 times in 2000. That rising zeal is reflected in sales. Last year, while the Canadian economy tanked and nearly every dairy retail category took a hit—including milk and cheese—yogourt posted six per cent growth for a total revenue of $1.8 billion, according to the Canadian Dairy Commission.

This is in large part, explains Balzer, because of yogourt’s versatility and convenience. It can be eaten at any meal, as a snack or dessert, plus it’s portable, considered healthy, and the small containers make portion control easy. Best of all, adds Mark Lalonde, chief of marketing programs at the Canadian Dairy Commission, the choice of flavours and textures are endless, so there’s no chance of getting tired of yogourt. “You hear people say, ‘I came home with a yogourt I really liked and when I went back [to the supermarket for more], I couldn’t remember where it was, there were so many other varieties.’ ”

The days when the most exotic thing about yogourt was the type of fruit jelly in the bottom of the cup are long gone. Today, consumers can choose from Greek-style or Icelandic yogourt; set or creamy; prebiotic or probiotic; organic or fortified; local, high-, low- or no-fat. There’s even yogourt made with coconut milk, green tea extract, pina colada or chocolate bars. Yogourt diet groups have popped up, with members trading recipes—some calling for multiple types of yogourt to make a single dish. There’s even a “frozen yogourt locator” iPhone application. Yogourt, quips Lalonde, “has taken on a life of its own.”

The yogourt market has become so competitive that companies are increasingly bold in their efforts to stand out. In 2009, the fastest-growing yogourt sub-sector in Canada was the prebiotic and probiotic drinking variety, up 49 per cent, with sales of $50 million. Earlier this year, manufacturer Dannon was ordered to pay American customers US$45 million in damages for inaccurately labelling its Activia and DanActive yogourt as “clinically” and “scientifically proven” to regulate digestion and improve the immune system.

Lalonde isn’t convinced this will hurt yogourt sales. “That the claim was contested,” he says, “doesn’t change the fact that it’s still good tasting” to many people. He suspects new products hitting Canadian stores such as yogourt sodas—prevalent in the Middle East and containing carbonated water, lemon and sea salt—will entice more buyers. And there are two more factors that give yogourt an edge over most other foods: no cooking, and even less cleanup.