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Do we need a daily dose of bacteria?

25th August 2006

The market for 'one-a-day' probiotic and prebiotic products is huge, but are they necessary? Ian Tokelove reports.

The British nation’s relationship with food is in a mess, with many people now accustomed to a processed, unbalanced diet. We have become reliant on ready-to-cook meals, takeaways and off-the-shelf snacks. With poor nutrition comes poor health, often debilitating at a personal level and the cause of enormous social and economic expense.

Although we know we should eat good food, many of us just don't do enough to make fundamental changes to our diet. Rather than eat more fruit and vegetables and a good balance of complex carbohydrate and protein-foods, we are increasingly turning to foods and drinks fortified with specific nutrients or 'good' bacteria – almost as a ‘magic fix’ for our unbalanced lives.

We forked out an estimated £1bn or more on ‘functional food’ products in 2005, and may spend twice that amount this year1. Functional foods may be convenient and come with a strong feel-good factor, but are they any substitute for a wholesome, varied diet?

Here we take a look at food and drink products with added probiotics and prebiotics and ask if they’re all they’re cracked up to be.

Probiotics

Ten years ago UK shoppers would never have guessed that their digestive systems were awash with symbiotic bacteria. Yet we now guzzle our way through £189m-worth of foods and drinks containing added bacteria each year, in the belief that these 'good' bacteria will improve our health.

The human gut houses a staggering 10 to 100 trillion microbes from 500 to 1,000 species – more than 10 times the number of cells that make up the human body. From a cellular point of view, this means we are more microbe than human. And each of us contains a wide variety of different types and quantities of bacteria rather than a single 'standard' mixture.

Products described as ‘probiotic’ are marketed with the idea that their 'good' bacteria can crowd out any 'bad' bacteria in our digestive systems. However, there is only limited independent evidence to support claims that probiotic products can improve the digestive health or strengthen the immune systems of healthy individuals.

For instance, research published by the Food Standards Agency in 2005 showed that the addition of commercially derived probiotic bacteria had no significant affect on the composition of the gut flora over a ten day in vitro experimental period.

Research has also shown that roughly half of the probiotic products on sale in the UK contained either different bacteria to those claimed, or the wrong amounts to be effective. The bacteria used by major brands tended to be better at making it through our digestive systems and into the intestines, but there is a big question mark about how effective these bacteria are when they get to their destination.

Whilst probiotics may be of use to those suffering from specific health problems, such as diarrhoea caused by antibiotics, or to the elderly who have a reduced gut flora, food and drink manufacturers continue to market probiotics as if they are an essential daily fix to people who probably don't need them at all.

Just like medicines, we expect these products to make us feel better – and indeed, on those days when we do feel ‘better’ – we can happily believe that a little pot of yogurt has improved our health. Of course, there will also be days when we don’t feel so good, but we can then be thankful we have some ‘beneficial’ yogurt on hand before reaching for our daily dose of ‘friendly’ bacteria.

Prebiotics

The bacteria in our digestive system need something to feed on. Prebiotics such as inulin are naturally-occurring soluble fibres that are hard for us to digest, but which provide nourishment for the bacteria in our intestines.

Inulin is found in many types of plants, including asparagus, bananas, wheat, chicory, onions, and garlic. Prebiotic enriched foods can be beneficial to our health, but there is a risk they may discourage vegetable-shy shoppers from shifting to a healthier 'five a day' diet.

Inulin can also be used by the food industry to replace the fat content in diet foods. Once mixed with water it forms a gel with a smooth, fatty texture that mimics the mouthfeel of fat. This makes it ideal for use in yogurt-type desserts where its prebiotic effect is an additional bonus to the ‘mouthfeel’ that it also brings.

Bacteria and business

Food manufacturers use prebiotics and probiotics to make their products stand out in a crowded and highly competitive marketplace. In order to stay a step ahead of their rivals, and as a means of grabbing the eye of the jaded shopper, 'functional' ingredients such as these are just one more weapon that manufacturers can use to pump up sales. Massive marketing budgets (see table below) reinforce the message that these one-a-day products are essential for health.

But as long as we continue to believe that we can simply purchase 'health off the shelf' in the form of functional foods, there is a risk that we will continue our slow dissociation from real food, the stuff prepared at home from fresh ingredients, the stuff that has fueled the human race for thousands of years.
Our bodies require a large range of macro- and micro-nutrients, which are frequently in short supply in modern, processed foods. Indeed, experts believe our typically high fat and low fibre diets may contribute to a lack of ‘friendly’ bacteria in our digestive systems.

The addition of probiotics and prebiotics to our food, along with other added extras such as vitamins or omega 3 oils, may provide some of us with a small pick-me-up, but what most of us should aim for is a healthy, balanced diet. Despite the promises these 'one-a-day' products, and others like them, simply cannot offset the multiple affects of a poor diet and a lack of exercise.

 

Little bugs and big money
Millions are spent on the promotion of probiotec products
Product
Cost
Danone Activia
£8.6 million
TV campaign 2006
Actimel brand (all)
£14 million
Marketing 2006
Actimel Kids Packs
£4 million
TV campaign 2006
Yoplait Petits Filous
£6 million
Introduction 2005
Yakult
£3.7 million
Relaunch 2005
Muller Vitality
£10 million
Brand support in 2006
Figures sourced from trade magazines and company trade adverts. Note that this is only a selection of probiotic products. The total value of promotional expenditure in this market is likely to be much larger.

 

Yoplait Petits Filous Plus Yoplait Petits Filous Plus is a new probiotic for children. It claims it can 'help keep your child's digestive system in balance. One little drink consumed every day as part of a balanced diet can help to maintain your child's wellbeing.' Strong claims indeed – and one sure to strike a chord with protective parents too busy to cook.

 

Munch BunchMeanwhile, Nestlé’s Munch Bunch is marketed as a ‘growth formula’ for growing kids, containing a ‘gentle probiotic’ that can ‘help keep little tummies healthy’. There is certainly nothing ‘gentle’ about probiotics – these bacteria have to be tough little buggers to survive in our digestive systems – and there is very little independent evidence to show that children need food containing extra probiotics.

 

ActimelActimel seems to want to cover all of the bases when the company tells us that 'Stress, eating irregularly, antibiotics, weather changes and a hectic lifestyle can impact on your body's natural balance'. Fortunately the label also lets us know that 'A daily intake of Actimel… sustains the levels of good cultures that live in your gut, which is where around 70% of your immune system is found.' Phew, next time the weather changes, reach for the Actimel!
YakultYakult is the product that started the probiotic market rolling. It claims to 'keep bad bugs at bay', ‘benefit overall well-being’ and has even implied it can beat the common cold!
ActimintProbiotic bacteria are usually associated with dairy products but now they come in mints as well. The Actimints website comes with an uncredited 'doctor recommendation' that we are 'recommended to take (Actimints) before, during and after a course of antibiotics'.
Multibionta vitamin tabetsThese Multibionta vitamin tabets are described by Seven Seas as ‘one-a-day... high performance probiotic multivitamins... formulated for active, hectic lifestyles’. The emotive ‘hectic lifestyle’ argument is a common marketing strategy, which could give the impression that it’s okay to skip meals and eat junk, as long as you ‘balance’ things up with a daily dose of vitamins or functional foods. Of course, there is a very strong argument that you’d be much better off sorting your life out rather than relying on supplements and pills, but for many of us the pills are the easier, if less effective, choice.
ActiviaActivia, made by Danone. This probiotic yogurt is marketed specifically at women with the claim that it can 'beat that bloated feeling'. The claim appears to be based on a single study of less than 300 women. There also appears to have been no ‘control’ study to see if similar effects might be experienced by women eating a yogurt without the added bacteria – an essential process if the study is to be taken seriously.
Feelwells probiotic dog foodAnd let's not forget man's best friend. Feelwells sell a probiotic dog food which promises 'to reduce flatulence' and 'produce firmer stools' – claims which have yet to catch on in the mainstream probiotic market!

References

1 Mintel, reported in Danone promotional supplement in The Grocer, May 2006