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​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The rise and rise of ambient yoghurt

Traditionally, yoghurt is a chilled snack typically eaten at the breakfast table. But the emergence of ambient yoghurt has turned old truths on their head. For millions of Chinese, yoghurt is now a drink consumed in portion packs while on the go – a trend that is now spreading across Asia, and into Africa and Latin America.​

Girl with milk mustache

​​Driving the popularity of ambient drinking yoghurt in China and beyond is growing consumer demand for convenience combined with nutritional value and taste.

People increasingly look for snacks and treats that suit their busy lifestyles. Shelf-stable yoghurt offers similar nutritional benefit to traditional fermented chilled yoghurt – minus the probiotic bacteria – but can be consumed on the move because it doesn’t need refrigeration. Its taste is comparable to the chilled variety.

In China, ambient drinking yoghurt is a remarkable success story. The fast-growing market amounts to almost 2.5 billion litres and now accounts for almost 50% of total yoghurt sales.

All this has been achieved since 2010, when a major Chinese dairy launched an ambient drinking yoghurt in collaboration with Tetra Pak. Since then, 13 dairy producers have entered this market with Tetra Pak processing lines.

Ambient yoghurt reaches new consumers

Lin Lin, Tetra Pak Dairy Cluster Category Leader in China, says the secret to the product’s success is its shelf-stable format, which allows it to achieve nationwide distribution.

“In China, the cold distribution chain is not well developed, so traditional chilled yoghurt cannot reach some consumers. But ambient yoghurt has succeeded in reaching consumers all across the county, even in small towns. The product goes wider and deeper,” he says.

Unlike traditional fermented yoghurt, ambient yoghurt lacks a live bacteria culture because it must be sterilized to remain shelf-stable. However, this has not been an obstacle to success in the Chinese market.

“Chinese consumers are open-minded and willing to accept new products, so establishing the ambient concept wasn’t a big step for them. What matters to the consumer is the knowledge that ambient drinking yoghurt is a protein-rich and healthy food – and Chinese dairies have promoted it on those lines,” he explains.

Ambient yoghurt appeals to consumers of all ages, he adds. “Many schoolchildren eat it, and many office workers do too. People consume it both as a breakfast meal and also as a snack outside the home, on the go.”

New flavours and blends are appearing as the market develops, and dairies seek to differentiate themselves from the competition. Blueberry, vanilla and even cheese flavours have proven popular, and 2017 saw the launch of the latest innovation: ambient yoghurt with fruit and cereal particles.

New markets follow China’s success

So dynamic has the market become that some foreign dairies from outside Asia have begun producing ambient yoghurt specifically for export to China. Meanwhile, producers from elsewhere in Asia and other continents are now moving to replicate the Chinese success on their home soil.

In Africa and Greater Middle East, ambient yoghurt is growing quickly. In Nigeria, for example, a new production line for ambient yoghurt was under construction at the time of writing. Meanwhile, 2019 sees the product arrive in South America when it launches in Brazil.

Richard Brockhof, Dairy Processing Category Leader for Tetra Pak in Brazil, is closely involved in the latter project.

“We saw the immense popularity of ambient yoghurt in China and decided there was potential to take this forward in Brazil,” he explains. “The essential point is that the product has the nutritional aspects, the proteins and the minerals you get from yoghurt, yet also the advantage of ambient distribution. It’s a healthy product you can take everywhere.”

Chilled distribution is very expensive in a tropical country like Brazil and can account for up to 30 percent of a product’s cost. For obvious reasons, chilled products tend to be consumed at home. An ambient option paves the way for consumers to enjoy yoghurt outside the home as well.

On-the-go consumption on the rise

The desire for convenience and portability is a strong market driver. Brockhof notes that chilled milk consumption is falling in some developing countries because consumers increasingly eat their breakfast outside the home. The emergence of ambient yoghurt is one response to this shift in habits.

In many families, Brockhof says, breakfast has become something you take on the go. “You can take ambient portion packs to school, to the office – you can take them everywhere thanks to their carry-on attributes,” he says.

In Brazil, the ambient yoghurt launch that Tetra Pak and its dairy company partner are working on will initially target consumers aged 12 to 25, who are leading the shift in habits.

“One of the lessons we have seen from China is that it is important for producers to be connected to consumers’ needs. If they understand that yoghurt with more protein and different kinds of characteristics may connect them to young people, it could help to increase market penetration.”

In Brazil, the product is classed as an “ambient dairy beverage” because national law reserves the term yoghurt for milk with a live culture that undergoes a certain process.

Yoghurt drink in Tetra Top carton bottles

Innovative product creates new opportunities for producers

However, Brockhof does not see this as a hindrance. “Ambient dairy beverages will not be competing with existing products but will bring something new to the market and provide a good opportunity for producers to move to added value products. In recent years, Brazilian consumers have been looking for new products and innovations that fit their lifestyles better, and ambient yoghurt can play this role.”

He sees two categories of customer where the potential to start producing ambient dairy beverages will be especially high. Existing chilled yoghurt producers and also processors that do not produce yoghurt today.

“For customers that already produce standard chilled yoghurt, the route to aseptic is shorter because they already have some of the processing equipment in place,” he says. “Then there are customers that don’t have chilled and may go straight into ambient. Some of them may even use that as a way into chilled distribution.

The initial projection for Brazil is total production of 3 million litres of ambient yoghurt in 2019, rising to 10 million litres in 2020.

One thing is for sure: if the product catches consumers’ imagination in Brazil as it has in China, the rise of ambient yoghurt is likely to go on and on.

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