Yoghurt benefits queried

There are many kinds of probiotic bacteria – included in food products such as yogurt – and their health benefits vary by type and quantityCheck out the dairy aisle of any major grocery store and you may think you’ve stumbled into a pharmacy. A growing number of yoghurt companies are promoting the ability of their products to aid digestion, boost brain development and strengthen the immune system through the addition of probiotics.

Some yoghurt brands have even started boasting the inclusion of docosahexaenoic acid, more commonly known as DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid associated with helping normal brain development.

The probiotic trend has proven so popular that the live micro-organisms can now be found in a wide range of products, including frozen yoghurt, beverages and cereal.

But the credibility of health claims accompanying probiotic-infused foods suffered a blow last week when yoghurt giant Dannon Co. Inc., agreed to make labelling changes and set up a fund of US$35 million to pay back customers who purchased Activia and DanActive products for their perceived health benefits.

The agreement was part of a settlement reached in a lawsuit launched against the company in the United States.

While the company said it did not admit any wrongdoing and stood by the scientific credibility of its products, some say it’s valid to question the health assertions trumpeted by yoghurt makers and other food manufacturers.

A major part of the problem is that the popularity of probiotics among consumers has attracted companies that may not have invested in research to prove their products have a health benefit, said John Bienenstock, professor of medicine and pathology at McMaster University in Hamilton.

‘There’s people jumping on the bandwagon and I think that’s the problem that we’ve got,’ said Dr. Bienenstock, who is also director of the Brain-Body Institute at St. Joseph’s Health Care.

Probiotics are live micro-organisms, or bacteria, that can deliver potential health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts, according to the World Health Organisation. Research has shown that probiotics may help reduce urinary-tract infections and stomach discomfort, and boost the immune system of some individuals.

But there are many types of probiotic bacteria, and their health benefits vary. That means the benefits offered by foods infused with probiotics depend largely on the type, amount and combination added to a particular product – information that is often difficult to find or understand by consumers, said Wayne Miller, associate scientist at the Canadian Research and Development Centre for Probiotics.

‘Not all probiotics are the same,’ Dr. Miller said. ‘There’s lots of promising research out there but I think we’re hampered by the fact there’s a lot of products out there that are called probiotic that don’t have any research behind them.’

Many companies add probiotics to their products that haven’t been fully studied or analysed to determine what, if any, health benefit they offer, Dr. Miller said.

He said there are signs to help consumers determine which may be the better probiotic yoghurt. He advised consumers to choose types of yoghurt that list the specific probiotic bacteria used in the product.

He also recommended going on the company’s website or directly requesting scientific material that can back up health statements. Or consumers could consult with a family doctor who may be able to tell them if the evidence supporting certain probiotics exists.