Science Doesn’t Buy Probiotic Marketing, And You Shouldn’t Either

bowl of yogurt with berries on tablecloth

In the past couple weeks, we’ve learned that toilet liners and food labels are full of lies. And now, Science is coming for your precious probiotics. But don’t necessarily go blaming these bacteria; the main problem is with advertisers misusing them. The thing is, studying probiotics is a complicated process, and right now what we don’t know about them outweighs what we do. Yet that hasn’t stopped food companies from deceptively cashing in on their perceived health benefits, regardless of specific scientific evidence.

In their Guidelines for the Evaluation of Probiotics in Food, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines probiotics as “live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Scientifically determining such health benefits of these bacteria is difficult, because the WHO Guidelines say it’s “necessary to know the genus and species of the probiotic strain. The current state of evidence suggests that probiotic effects are strain specific.” The problem is that nearly every study uses different bacteria, so it’s hard to produce consistent evidence. Though we may think of bacteria as all being the same thing, the truth is that each strain is a special snowflake with varying potential health effects.

University of Washington microbiologist Lynne McFarland gives an anecdotal example of the strain diversity problem during a visit to her pharmacist, who told her to take probiotics with her antibiotics. McFarland says, “I immediately asked what kinds were effective, and she replied to ‘Just eat some yogurt.’” Though yogurts usually contain active cultures, the lack of formal labeling requirements means that the word “probiotic” isn’t enough to tell whether the product will be effective for a particular health issue. In fact, in 2010 Dannon found itself in an expensive lawsuit as a result of the labeling on their Activia and DanActive products. The corporation paid a $45 million settlement for overstating its claims of regulating digestion and boosting immune support.

As I said, probiotics aren’t to blame here, and there are definitely strains that have been shown to have specific health benefits. For example, researchers have identified beneficial microbes for treating necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm infants. And as microbiologist David Mills says, “This field holds much promise. I really do think that ways of modulating gut health, through diet or probiotics, is something that’s going to be much more personalized in the future.” And until that future is a reality, food labelers need to stop making unverified claims.

Interestingly enough, the European Food Safety Authority already banned the use of ‘probiotic’ on food labels back in 2012. EFSA defines the term as a ‘health claim’ which must be approved by their panel for use on labels, but so far has not been passed. Seems like a progressive idea given the scientific evidence we’ve seen, though there are people who aren’t happy with the decision. And by people, I mean corporations.

(Image: Jill Chen/Shutterstock)



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    • Kathy

      A search through pubmed shows a number of scientific studies finding how much probiotics can contribute to our health. From autoimmune disorders, skin issues, obesity, researchers are studying everything related to gut bacteria. I write about gut health and how it relates to our overall health on, and I’ve got a few links over there attempting to make sense of the science. I don’t think any one brand of probiotic is the best. Switching things up seems to be the best. But we were born with sterile guts, and ever since, there has been a battle between pathogenic and probiotic bacteria inside of us. The more we can help the good guys win the battle, the healthier we tend to be.