Bongo Goes Greek

What goes into making a new yogurt for kids? TFK went behind the scenes at Dannon to find out.

Jan 17, 2014 | By TFK Kid Reporter Raphael Chambers
JOSHUA BRIGHT—THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

Thierry Saint-Denis, Dannon's director of research and development, mixes fruit with plain yogurt at the food company's lab in White Plains, New York.

You may have seen him in supermarkets or in TV ads. You may even have found him in your lunchbox. Bongo is the character developed by Dannon USA for their Danimals yogurts for kids.

Now, Bongo is going Greek. That is, Dannon is introducing a new kind of yogurt for kids. It’s “Greek” style: that means the yogurt is thicker than usual. Dannon is calling its new yogurt Danimals “Superstars.”

Saint-Denis sits at his desk at Dannon. It is lined with containers of Dannon products.
JOSHUA BRIGHT—THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX
Saint-Denis sits at his desk at Dannon. It is lined with containers of Dannon products.

How does a big company like Dannon come up with a new food product for kids? What’s the science that goes into it? How do they get kids excited about eating it? To find answers to these and other questions, I visited the Dannon Discovery and Innovation Center, in White Plains, New York.

Sweet Science

Greek-style yogurt is becoming more and more popular with adults. But Dannon did surveys and found that while parents are eating Greek yogurt, their kids aren’t. “We were curious why,” said Dannon’s Michael Neuwirth. “Kids told us that Greek yogurt was too thick and too sour.” What did Dannon do with this information? They looked for ways to make the yogurt appealing to kids. 

The basics of making yogurt are simple, explained Dr. Thierry Saint-Denis, Dannon’s director of research and development: “Take milk. Mix in a yogurt culture [bacteria]. Heat it to 104°F for a few hours.” Bacteria turn lactose in the milk into lactic acid. The lactic acid then goes through a natural chemical process called fermentation, which turns the milk into yogurt.

What makes yogurt “Greek”? It’s thicker than regular yogurt, and less sweet. Dannon’s scientists searched for special bacteria that would make their Greek yogurt feel less thick and taste sweeter to kids. Dr. Saint-Denis said that after many tests, they found those bacteria. But he couldn’t tell TFK which bacteria: they are trade secrets. 

Behind the Scenes

The Dannon headquarters is a huge complex, with a laboratory, factory, lecture hall, offices, and reception area. People work there in research and development, marketing, and production. This allows the Danimals Superstars team to run their whole process in one place, and to quickly bring products to market.

From the lecture hall, I could see through glass to a mini-factory where Dannon does trial runs of products the company hopes will be hits with consumers. There they produced special yogurts in giant stainless-steel tanks operated by technicians in sealed, sanitized white suits. Next, I visited a test kitchen, where Dannon scientists add different flavorings and fruits to yogurts. For fun, they sometimes bake cakes and other treats to mix into the yogurt.

Danimals Superstars is Dannon's new line of Greek yogurt for kids.
COURTESY DANNON
Danimals Superstars is Dannon's new line of Greek yogurt for kids.

In the marketing offices, I saw 3D printers that make containers of different sizes and shapes for yogurt. There were also finished packages and human-sized posters of Bongo with the new Danimals Superstars yogurt.

Bongo may have gone Greek with this new yogurt, but you won’t find him sporting a toga or tunic. Instead, you’ll find him doing sports: skateboarding, snowboarding, mountain biking, rafting, and waterskiing. The message Dannon hopes to communicate is that eating Danimals Superstars will give kids the energy for sports like these.

Finally, I got to taste the finished products. Out of the five new flavors, my favorite was Mixed Berry Half-Pipe, for its tart and very berry flavor. Strawberry Slide was a close second, and Strawberry Banana Sprint was also rock solid.

Will “Greek” work for Bongo? It’s up to kids.