The company's combination product, Bion3, which launched at the end of 2002, last year sold 600,000 units and is expected to grow more than 50 per cent this year. The product has proved successful in the UK (known as Multibionta) and Belgium too, partly because of its original composition but also its positioning.
"It is positioned to reinforce the natural defences. We created this positioning and it corresponds well to current consumer demand," said Bertrand Duvernoy, marketing manager for Merck's French supplements business.
He also cited the product's efficacy, which has now been demonstrated in a major clinical trial. Reported in the August issue of Clinical Nutrition (vol 24, issue 4, pp481-91), the study showed that in people taking the supplement for at least three months colds lasted for less time and symptoms were not as severe as a control group.
"Given the success we've seen with this product we now want to develop an expert brand in this area," Duvernoy told NutraIngredients.com.
The result is Bion Transit, a supplement containing the Lactobacillus plantarum 299V probiotic strain, which has been shown to help reduce intestinal discomfort and other IBS symptoms.
The probiotic was originally developed by Swedish biotech company Probi, which signed a licensing agreement for dietary supplements with Institut Rosell in 2003, now supplying Merck. The strain was brought to the US market in March and has recently been licensed to UK distributor Quest Vitamins.
Probiotic bacteria has been widely researched for its impact on gut health but few strains have enough evidence to claim a benefit on IBS symptoms, which can have a severe impact on quality of life. In France, an estimated 10 million people, in particular women aged between 30-50 years old, are affected by intestinal problems.
Merck, the country's number three in supplements, will market the new product to doctors, relying heavily on the scientific evidence backing its efficacy.
The firm's supplement range in France, which also includes the Gerimax and SeleniumACE brands, only accounted for 17 per cent of MMF's €88 million turnover in 2004 but Duvernoy says it is growing, and should reach 20 per cent of sales this year.
"This range has more and more importance for the business," he said.
The new probiotic, launched in September, should help grow the firm's probiotic sales (in addition to Bion3) to nearly 1 million units by the end of 2005, Duvernoy added.