Gathering dust in a filing cabinet somewhere in the headquarters of the European Food Safety Authority in Parma, Italy, are hundreds of documents outlining vague health claims the makers of probiotic yoghurts and pills would love to be able to make for their products.
One strain of bacteria supposedly ‘helps your natural defence and supports the immune system’.
Others are said to aid ‘natural bowel regularity’, or ‘maintain dominance of good bacteria in the gut’.
All such claims, however, are now stamped ‘Not validated’.
Eight years ago, tough new Europe-wide regulations governing health claims made for food products came into force.
Since 2009, manufacturers of probiotics have submitted 129 health claims for their products including yoghurt drinks and supplement pills — and yet not one has been approved.
Each claim has been rejected on the grounds that, after a rigorous appraisal by a panel of 20 international experts, it ‘could not be substantiated’.
So shoppers are now faced with a puzzling range of products with labels that refer mysteriously to the number and strains of bacteria they contain, but give no clue as to what good it might do you to gulp them down.
THE LABEL PROBIOTIC IS ACTUALLY BANNED
Since December 2012, even use of the word ‘probiotic’ — from the Latin word ‘pro’, meaning ‘for’, and the Greek word ‘bio’, or ‘life’ — has been banned in Europe, in case unwary consumers assume it implies a health benefit.
Technically, that means no products that were formerly marketed as probiotics, including drinks such as Yakult, can now carry the word.
Since December 2012, even use of the word ‘probiotic’ has been banned in Europe, in case unwary consumers assume it implies a health benefit
So while in the U.S. Yakult is labelled as a ‘cultured probiotic drink’ which, if consumed daily, ‘may help to balance your digestive system and maintain overall health’, here the European regulations mean shoppers are told only that it contains Lactobacillus casei Shirota.
Perhaps not surprisingly the market for probiotics has shrunk by 4 per cent over the past four years.
And yet last year consumers in the UK still spent a whopping £740 million on probiotic products.
So are we simply frittering our money away?
Scientists now know that each of us has a complex internal ecosystem of trillions of bacteria living in our guts — our microbiome.
Disruption of this finely balanced system — which can be upset even by apparently innocent antibiotics or poor diet — has been linked to health problems such as infections, type 2 diabetes and weight gain.
But while there is growing evidence for the importance of bacteria, the question is: can the balance be maintained, or restored, by throwing reinforcements of ‘good’ bacteria — or probiotics — into the mix through pills or food products?
HEALTH CLAIMS ARE UNPROVEN
That probiotics can be good for you is the theory on which a multi-billion‑pound global industry has been built.
Probiotics are normally manufactured by growing colonies of a selected bacterium in a nutrient-rich jelly called agar.
The bacteria are then extracted and added to products, or freeze-dried for use in pills or capsules.
Manufacturers have trademarked their own versions, or strains, of bacteria.
Actimel and Yakult, for instance, both contain patented versions of the bacteria Lactobacillus casei, found naturally in the gut.
Manufacturers have trademarked their own versions, or strains, of bacteria. Actimel and Yakult both contain patented versions of the bacteria Lactobacillus casei, found naturally in the gut
Yakult’s is Lactobacillus casei Shirota, named after the Japanese microbiologist and company founder, Minoru Shirota, who first cultured the strain in 1935.
Actimel’s patented version is Lactobacillus casei DN-114001.
But can commercially-produced probiotics make a difference?
According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), so far the evidence just isn’t there yet.
A spokesman told Good Health there were a variety of reasons why EFSA had rejected all the health claims for probiotics submitted since 2009.
In many cases the micro-organism was ‘not sufficiently characterised’ — meaning its species and strain were unclear, which was of ‘critical importance’, as the manufacturer was making specific claims for it.
Other claimed effects — such as ‘gut health, general well-being, body’s resistance’ — were too vague to be scientifically evaluated.
Crucially, many claims lacked evidence of ‘relevant human studies of sufficient quality’.
GOOD BACTERIA THAT DON’T REACH THE GUT
The manufacturers have responded by reformulating their products, adding vitamins and minerals for which health claims have been approved, says Ewa Hudson, global head of health and wellness research for market researcher Euromonitor.
She also suspects some companies have quietly reduced the volume of bacteria in their products — ‘given that they can’t promote it, what’s the point of pumping up the numbers of bacteria, which are costly to manufacture’.
Last month, the probiotics supplements industry suffered a further blow when researchers at the School of Pharmacy at University College London (UCL) tested eight products — five capsules or powders and three liquid products — and found that the bacteria in capsules and tablets were likely to be killed off by the acid in the stomach long before they reached the gut.
Liquid products were found to be more effective.
As well as reaching the gut in sufficient numbers, they were also
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