Warning over bogus probioticsShoppers advised to stick to big brands

08 August 2006

 

Probiotics: labels should fully describe the number and type of bacteria

Labels should describe fully the number and type of bacteria if the product makes a health claim or is labelled 'probiotic'.

Up to half the ‘friendly bacteria’ products on the market are ineffective and some may even be harmful, scientists have claimed.

Friendly - or 'probiotic' - bacteria aid digestion in the gut. Research suggests they help prevent certain bowel conditions and protect children against allergies. They may even reduce the risk of colon cancer.

There's been a huge surge in such products - in the form of yoghurt-style drinks, or as supplements or powders – and all claim to improve your health by boosting levels of beneficial bacteria in your gut.

But at a meeting in London on Monday scientists said that some products may not contain the numbers of bacteria advertised, and the microbes may not survive in the gut long enough to be of any benefit. They also suggested that in some cases, high levels of harmful bacteria have been found in probiotic products.

Stick to major brands

Professor Glen Gibson, from the University of Reading, who was one of the experts at the meeting, said: ‘As a rule of thumb, you can trust the big manufacturers. Their quality control is very good. On the other hand there are a lot of products out there that no-one's ever heard of, and this is where the problems arise. Half the products on sale don't match up to what they say on their labels.'

In January, Which? also raised questions about probiotic products. We said that, although the bacteria may be beneficial in certain circumstances, evidence for this was 'patchy', and there was no reliable research to prove that probiotics help your general well-being. We're campaigning for all health claims to be approved before being used in marketing.

No rules

Some 50 different probiotic products are currently marketed in the UK. Prof Gibson's warning did not apply to major brands such as Yakult, Actimel and Vitality.

However, many other products are sold on the internet and in health food shops, and no rules regulate what they contain.

Prof Gibson added: ‘There's no legislation. You could buy a yoghurt-maker from Tesco, make your own probiotics, and sell them.’