Can the probiotic yogurt make it in a Greek yogurt world?
EC: Whatever Happened to Activia?
Credit: Illustration by Lauren Kolm

Ask an American what the name Activia conjures up, and you’ll probably get an image of Jamie Lee Curtis celebrating her regular bathroom trips. The yogurt, introduced in France in 1987 by Danone (known as Dannon in the US), is known for its probiotics—which supposedly make you more regular (cue this Saturday Night Live sketch poking fun at its potency). As “gut health” has become a key (if zeitgeisty) term in the health world’s vernacular, withsome research substantiating the beneficial—if varying—effect of probiotics on the digestive tract, you’d think that Activia would be thriving, right? Not quite.

Like many foods that make grandiose claims to transform your body, Activia has been hit with criticism over the years. There was an FTC lawsuit in 2010 attacking Activia for fallaciously claiming it could make you more regular in two weeks despite evidence stating otherwise. A study in 2008 claimed that the yogurt “[shortened] intestinal transit” but didn’t increase bowel movements. (Activia now couches its benefits by saying it “may help reduce the frequency of minor digestive discomfort.”) A recent study from the University of Toronto highlighted that you’d have to eat somewhere between 2 and 25 Activia yogurts a day to get a real effect.

In the first quarter of the year, sales for fresh dairy products fell 2.3 percent like-for-like, in part because of Activia’s weak performance in Europe, as well as other market pressures. In Danone’s most recent quarter, sales in the Essential Dairy & Plant-Based International line, saw sales fall 2.9 percent in North America, though a press release said the “yogurt segment continued to demonstrate resilience” in the US. Also notable in the US, plant-based protein powder Vega—which Danone picked up in its 2016 acquisition of WhiteWave—reportedly grew. The International division of that same overall category saw sales fall 1.8 percent, while the company works to repackage and reposition Activia in Europe. In a statement, CEO Emanuel Farber acknowledged it was a “slow start of the year,” but anticipates “growth acceleration” in the second half of the year.

Though the yogurt industry has had a recent, rapid ascension, the real star of the industry has been Greek yogurt.In fact, Chobani, which has only been around since 2005, holds a bigger market share of the US yogurt industry than both General Mills (which holds Yoplait) and Dannon, according to IBISWorld. Activia also has several factors that dampen its image to the savvy, health-conscious consumer: it’s not 100% natural, it has sugar listed as its second ingredient, and it has significantly less protein than its Greek counterpart. (A 5.3-ounce serving of nonfat Chobani has 15 grams; a 4-ounce container of Activia has 4 grams.)

Arguably, Activia’s biggest downside that it has been positioned as a diet food, and diet culture has shifted dramatically in recent years, eschewing manufactured diet products, like Special K, for more healthful, natural foods. Meanwhile, Activia has been working on rebranding itself as a female-positive brand. Its winter ad “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t” riffs on the increasingly popular (and bizarre) trend of overhauling a diet food as an empowering food for women.

Plus, there are other places (aside from supplements) to get probiotics, says Keri Gans, R.D.N, like regular yogurt. “If you like yogurt, I would first [suggest] having a daily dose of yogurt to get probiotics,” she says. Other probiotic foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, or other fermented foods.

“I think it comes down to what people enjoy,” she says, although she concedes, “I would like to see [a client eating] yogurt as a snack or [part of] a breakfast with more protein—4 grams is just not enough.” Alongside a slice of whole wheat toast with a poached egg, she says, would be fine, but “90 calories is not enough to start your day.”

However, not everyone can access these foods so easily. Not everyone lives in a metropolis, or even near a health food store, or has the disposable income to go to a coffee shop with kombucha on tap—let alone lives near a store that sells kombucha. And that is where something like Activia—though not a perfect food—might come into play, should someone really like it.

So where does that leave Activia? While it’s still on shelves in grocery stores and there are certainly people who still eat it—and there will be a legitimate answer to how it’s performing when Danone announces its first-half earnings in a few weeks—for now, it’s in the same spot that a lot of primarily diet foods are in: dealing with the fact these days, people are very likely to choose something else instead. And when it comes to probiotics, there are just so many other options, no matter what Jamie Lee Curtis might have said.