Belgium already has a wide range of probiotic yoghurts and milk drinks on its retail shelves with an estimated 130 million units of 'little bottles' consumed during 2003.
And its consumers are increasingly aware of the health benefits of functional foods and aside from the Yakult and Actimel probiotic brands, the country is also an important market for the cholesterol-lowering Benecol and ProActiv products.
"Consumer research indicated that Belgians were interested in consuming probiotics in other forms, such as cheese," Jos Van Baelen, marketing manager at Valio's Belgium subsidiary Valio-Vache Bleue told NutraIngredients.com.
"We also had good reactions from consumers visiting a health food fair in Brussels last month," he said.
Research carried out in 2002 found Belgians to be the healthiest people in the world, demonstrating how seriously the high-income, low population country takes its health. The London-based World Markets Research Center, which compared healthcare spending with what countries get back in terms of indicators like life expectancy and mortality rates, said the country topped 175 nations, beating the United States, which spends more on healthcare that any other country.
Cheese is also a growing dairy category in Belgium. Overall consumption of all cheese, excluding 'fromage blanc', reached 90,780 tons last year, growing by 2.5 per cent on the previous year, according to ACNielsen figures.
Like other dairy products it is a good medium for probiotic bacteria. The bacteria can be used as an adjunct culture with the normal cheese starter cultures, without effecting the taste or structure of the cheese.
"It also has the advantage of offering variation. Consumers can now eat a slice of our cheese instead of drinking probiotic yoghurt to get their daily intake of probiotic bacteria, without really changing their eating habits," added Van Baelen.
Valio is not the first company to launch a probiotic cheese in Belgium. Dairy group Aveve launched a low-fat cheese containing lactobacillus casei four years ago and has seen yearly growth of between 20-25 per cent.
The group's marketing division Avolac also sells the Wellness brand probiotic cheese, made by Kempico, and launched at last year's trade show Anuga.
"Our Nazareth brand probiotic cheese is seeing stronger growth in Belgium than in some of its other markets, such as France, where awareness of functional foods is lower," said Peter Riskin, export and sales manager at Avolac.
Valio's Gefilus cheese is also low-fat but includes the company's Lactobacillus GG, said to be the most widely researched probiotic bacteria in the world and already available in numerous other dairy products. The Emmental-type cheese was first launched in Finland in September 2000 and is also available in Estonia and Latvia.