My family's involvement with cultured milk products containing probiotic bacterial strains can be traced over seven centuries. Yogurt is the ancient "grandmother" of all dairy products with probiotic live cultures, and I was born into a family that was famous for producing the most delicious probiotic yogurt of all. By the time I was born, the original probiotic culture was centuries old.
As a child, I grew up hearing stories about my ancestors and their prosperous yogurt business. By the beginning of the Second World War, my family had enjoyed great wealth and prosperity for many years. Our probiotic yogurts were famous - so famous that we supplied it to the royal family of Yugoslavia. Our appointment as yogurt supplier to the royal court continued until the Axis powers brought down the monarchy in 1941. The royal family fled to England and set up a government in exile, but they never regained the throne.
With the Axis takeover and the rise of Marshall Tito to power, the Yugoslavian government became oppressive. Because of our long loyalty to the royal family and outspoken opposition to the new government, my family suffered many indignities. Our business and much of our wealth was lost. In October of 1954, my parents and I fled to Vienna, where we immediately applied to the American Embassy for permission to immigrate to the United States.
It was over a year before we received permission to enter the United States. We left Vienna in 1955 and settled in Milwaukee with my mother's brother. Although my uncle was very kind and Milwaukee was a nice place, my father felt suitable business opportunities were lacking, so we left Milwaukee nine months later.
Father decided that California, with its legendary healthy lifestyle, was the land of opportunity he was seeking. In the fall of 1956, we arrived in Hollywood with one hundred dollars and no job prospects. In the early 1960s, my father went into the yogurt business with a goal of producing the best probiotic yogurt in America. In order to realize his dream, Father knew he needed a starter probiotic culture from our famous family yogurt. He contacted a friend in Yugoslavia, bought him an airline ticket, and had him carry the live culture to the United States.
Father rented a small ice cream plant in Glendale, California, and named the fledgling company Continental Culture Specialists. He sold liquid yogurt by the gallon and solid yogurt in pint jars. At that time, all yogurt was unflavored.
In September 1966, I started college at UCLA, where I met my husband-to-be, Yordan Trenev. We were married on September 5, 1970. By then, I had received my degree and joined the family business full time. I helped develop our Royal Yogurt line of honey-sweetened and fruit-flavored custom probiotic yogurts with rich bacterial strains. Everybody loved them.
Back then, we sold our yogurt loaded with good bacteria to health food stores, not supermarkets. Yogurt, however, must be refrigerated, and in the early 1970s, most health foods stores didn't have refrigerators. I convinced a number of store owners to take their old refrigerators from homes to their stores to ensure proper storage of our fresh yogurt containing live cultures.
I also arranged to have our Royal Yogurt delivered along with Hansen's fresh-squeezed juices - this cut delivery costs for both companies. Around this time, I initiated the shipment of dairy products across state lines. Each state has its own standards governing fresh dairy products, which is why these products are usually "home grown."
Even though brand names may be recognized nationally, most dairy product producers have local plants. We needed to service our distributors in Pennsylvania and Florida, which prompted me to make a deal with United Airlines. The airline supplied us with shipping containers into which we packed our fresh yogurt containing Lactobacillus bacteria along with dry ice.
After successfully transporting the product to Pennsylvania and Florida, we began shipping our probiotic yogurt all over the United States. Prior to this, the only perishable items shipped by air across state lines were lobsters and orchids. Now, cold-pack shipping of a number of perishable items is common.
Satisfied with my work at Continental Culture Specialists, I left the company in 1974 to explore new challenges. After studying the science behind cultured products, the commercial end of the yogurt business was no longer enough for me. I wanted to get involved with high-tech research into the health benefits of live probiotic cultures, and I began by acting as a consultant to companies involved in yogurt production. At the same time, I continued studying microbiological research papers and scientific literature on the value of cultured milk products.
In 1980, I made arrangements with a research facility that gave me access to a laboratory, where I began culturing my own probiotic supplements. I processed cultures, supervised the freeze-drying and powdering processes, and even helped with the bottling. Everything was billed and shipped from my home. My husband trucked in dry ice every day to keep the live bacteria supplements from deteriorating in the garage, where we were forced to keep them stored.
For many years, I found myself continually frustrated by the lack of established standards for probiotics. Probiotics of the finest quality competed in the marketplace with probiotic products of such poor quality that I knew the consumer could not possibly benefit from them. Without reliable standards in place, there was no way for a consumer to compare the worth of any probiotic products and benefits.
For example, L. acidophilus was well known as a beneficial bacteria for humans by then, but even a knowledgeable consumer found it difficult to understand the benefits of a super strain of Lactobacillus acidophilus compared with the generic supplements (some filled with questionable organisms that contained no acidophilus) that also lined store shelves.
I began working with the Natural Nutritional Foods Association (NNFA) to set standards for probiotic supplements. In 1989, the Association wrote and adopted the NNFA Probiotic Labeling Standard. This ruling requires that probiotic supplement labels list the quantity and identity of the live bacteria species present, a viable cell count, an expiration date, certification of the absence of pathogens, storage requirements, and a list of any additional ingredients. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, virtually none of the probiotic supplement suppliers (except Natren) adhere to these standards.
In 1993, I was honored to be recognized as an authority in the field of probiotic cultures. At the request of the World Health Organization, I was invited to speak on probiotic bacteria and probiotic benefits at the Fifteenth International Congress of Nutrition in Australia. My audience consisted mainly of scientists and Ph.D.s, and I received a standing ovation.
Of course, I was flattered by the enthusiastic response I received, but that really wasn't the important issue. What was important is that the applause from the audience indicated that the medical profession is finally beginning to acknowledge the science supporting the daily use of probiotics owing to multiple probiotics benefits. Probiotics are not relegated to research labs any longer. However, until beneficial bacteria supplements are as well-known as vitamins - and that day is coming - this news remains insider information.
NATASHA TRENEV'S CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE FIELD OF PROBIOTICS