So is this the beginning of the end for probiotics? No, it is merely the end of the beginning.
The recent media attention and apparent backlash should, despite short-term bruises, lead to a better regulated industry with strains that actually stand up to scrutiny.
People have spoken out about this before, and associations like ISAPP (International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics) and IPA (International Probiotics Association) are working hard on ensuring that players stick to the rules, but more needs to be done.
Trust problems already exist: A recent Datamonitor survey of Brits found that, while more consumers are able to understand and differentiate between the varying health benefits attached to probiotic strains, only 27 per cent said they believed the claims. On the other side of the Atlantic, 86 per cent of American respondents said the claims were trustworthy. But then again, a national survey carried out in the US by Opinion Research Corporation revealed that 85 per cent of respondents knew “little to nothing” about probiotics.
Follow this up with mainstream press articles such as the one published in Canada’s Globe and Mail this week entitled ‘Questions raised over probiotic benefits’, and in Britain’s The Guardian (July 2009) entitled ‘Are probiotics really that good for your health?’, and you have consumers' confidence wavering.
These are warning signs – the canary in the yoghurt pot – and standard bearers in the industry and academia need to react, and need to be seen to react. The bandwagon has been trundling on for a while now, with too many pretenders jumping on.
The big boys named
One of the most surprising developments in recent times has been the spotlight on Danone, held up by many as the probiotic torch bearer. The company withdrew its initial health claims dossiers with EFSA early this year. The French giant said it would resubmit all three before the end of the year with additional trials added to the dossiers to strengthen their claims. There are suggestions that their original science was lacking.
In the US its American reincarnation Dannon settled out of court over alleged misleading probiotic claims, leading some to question the scientific integrity of its claims. Despite the settlement, Dannon is sticking by the veracity of its claims.
Danone/Dannon will come back stronger than ever, with the studies to back up its products, of that I have no doubt. Along with Yakult, it has invested too much in getting the probiotic market on its feet.
These very public incidents offer a cautionary tale for many in the probiotic field – make sure the claims stand up to scrutiny.
Sharpen those pitchforks
Now is the time for action. The promise of probiotics is immense, from boosting immune health to helping fight obesity, from reducing the risk of certain cancers to influencing brain function. Such benefits are based on one thing: Science.
But it is too easy for a company to supply or market strains without the scientific proof. While EFSA is saying that companies cannot make claims on the labels about health benefits, it (and similar authorities) must go further and stamp down on anyone who markets a ‘probiotic’ if it isn’t one.
The mere definition of probiotic, according to FAO/WHO, promises a health benefit – "Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host".
It doesn’t matter whether there is an additional claim attached – probiotic implies health benefit. No health benefit? It’s just a strain that doesn’t help you. Not many consumers will pay to put that down their throats.
Get your pitch forks ready, but not for an indiscriminant witch hunt. We’ll need them to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Stephen Daniells is the Science Editor for NutraIngredients.com and FoodNavigator.com. He has a PhD in Chemistry from Queen's University Belfast and has worked in research in the Netherlands and France.
If you would like to comment on this article please contact stephen.daniells'at'decisionnews.com
For more information on probiotics, please click here for an excellent recent review on the definition in Functional Food Reviews by ISAPP’s Mary Ellen Sanders.