UK broadsheet questions probiotic efficacy

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Probiotic

Industry has hit back at an article that appeared in the UK Guardian newspaper at the weekend which questioned the role of probiotics in nutrition.

As The Sunday Times​ did the weekend previously, the lengthy Guardian ​article questioned functional foods and highlighted the negative health claim opinions being issued by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), something industry remains vulnerable to until at least one probiotic product or strain draws a positive opinion from the scientific assessor.

The article did highlight some of the concerns industry has with the health claims assessment process itself, a point industry reiterated to this morning.

It’s not me, it’s you

Ioannis Misopoulos, the director general of the International Probiotics Association (IPA), said even EFSA acknowledged the process has not been perfect, nor its demands communicated very well, and this had fed many problems including a situation where the mainstream press was beginning to make a story of the claim rejections.

He said the situation could be quickly improved if a positive EFSA opinion was forthcoming and noted that Danone was set to resubmit three gut health and immunity claims in Autumn, after withdrawing them in April, while it sought further guidance from EFSA.

The Guardian​ quoted Danone stating in part: "The three health claim applications are related to Danone's fresh dairy products Activia and Actimel, that are among the probiotic products with the most extensive scientific documentation. Their efficacy has been shown in many different studies and the results have been published in highly reputed international scientific journals. We welcome the new process and remain committed to working with EFSA."

The IPA would respond to The Guardian​ article in the form of a letter, Misopoulos said.

Body of evidence

Dr Linda Thomas, the science director at the UK arm of probiotics pioneer, Yakult, noted the substantial body of evidence for functional foods such as probiotics.

Between them, Yakult and Danone have conducted about 100 trials into the varying benefits of probiotics.

She noted that all the EFSA opinions so far were article 13.5 emerging and proprietary claims and article 14 children’s and disease reduction claims, not generic article 13.1 claims.

“Yakult support the EU health regulations and the company has confidence in the scientific evidence behind the claims we have submitted,”​ she told

“The health benefits for our product Yakult and our unique probiotic strain Lactobacillus casei Shirota, are backed by over 70 years of research and more than 70 human trials.”

She noted Yakult had attained hard-to-come-by “food for specified health use”​ status by Japan’s Ministry of Health, and has had a claim approved by the Dutch Code of Practice.

Is this working?

The article, entitled ‘Are probiotics really that good for your health?’​, scanned the current probiotic climate and determined the industry still needed to prove its products worked – at least in the eyes of EFSA – despite the fact nearly 60 per cent of UK households now regularly buy probiotic drinks and spend about €200m per year on them.

“How and why that happened is a fascinating commentary of the nature of advanced capitalism and its genius for making consumers want whatever it has to sell,”​ wrote Felicity Lawrence, the Guardian​ journalist and the author of Eat Your Heart Out: Why the Food Business is Bad for the Planet and Your Health.

“…The fact is, nearly a decade after they achieved mass consumption, we are still waiting to hear whether EFSA's scientists think they work or not,”

Meanwhile, The Sunday Times ​yesterday published an article backing cranberry juice in spite of an EFSA negative opinion linking consumption of the berry and urinary tract infection benefits.

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