/ Food & Drink, Health

Does the ‘bad science’ behind probiotics turn your stomach?

Do you drink probiotics every morning? Do you think they’re good for your gut and promote ‘friendly bacteria’ for a healthy digestive system? They may do all these things, but are these claims backed by good science?

I’ve always been intrigued by probiotic drinks. The promise of ‘good bacteria’ tidying things in there is a nice, if not an entirely pleasant, thought.

However, I’ve always questioned why I couldn’t just get the same benefits from a yoghurt, some vitamins, or (even better) a healthy and balanced diet. Is spending £2.50 a week on these little bottles really going to do my gut as much good as they claim?

Lower your cholesterol?

And it’s the ‘scientific’ claims that get to me. Many food products boast that they will do miraculous things for your gut/brain/blood, and most of us presume they’re backed by proper scientific trials.

Do you take claims such as ‘this will lower your cholesterol’, ‘this product is good for your joints’, or ‘this drink will maintain normal blood pressure’ at face value? It’d be nice if we could, but such health benefits aren’t always backed by hard evidence.

Thankfully the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has been busy putting these health claims under the microscope to form an approved list. We’ve talked about this list before, where an incredible 80% of health claims were ruled to be false. However, some health claims were still being debated, with probiotic drinks being one of them.

‘Healthy intestinal flora’

Probiotic producers resubmitted their claims as they felt that they had the evidence to back up statements including probiotics ‘promote healthy intestinal flora to support bowel function’, they ‘help maintain digestive balance by promoting “good bacteria” levels’ and they ‘promote the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria’.

The EFSA has ruled out all of these claims as there is not enough evidence to suggest a cause and effect relationship. Such phrases will no longer be allowed to be used in probiotic advertising or on their packets.

Sure, there’s nothing wrong with people buying food products because they think they’re good for them, but if this belief has been fed by unsubstantiated health claims, they could be splashing out on a product for the wrong reasons. It’s good to see that food makers will have do a bit more work before they can make bold claims about their product.

In other news, here’s a health claim you can trust – the EFSA has ruled that prunes do indeed promote normal bowel function… now there’s some movement in the food industry.

Do you take health claims on foods at face value?

Maybe - it depends on the particular claim (48%, 118 Votes)

No - I don't believe food health claims (45%, 109 Votes)

Yes - I presume such claims are regulated (7%, 17 Votes)

Total Voters: 251

Loading ... Loading ...

Claims need to be reviewed before products go on sale. It’s no good waiting until companies have made vast profits selling expensive products that confer little or no benefit.

I think it is about time that we have short public information films on TV to alert people not to waste their money. Those who watch documentaries or listen to radio programmes about these issues are the ones who are likely to already be aware of the problem.

I don’t find it incredible that 80% of the health claims were false, but I am surprised that 20% are true.


The only health claim I believe is on the front of an Optivita box and is approved by Heart UK whoever they are. The claim is “Specifically developed with the active part of oats to help lower Cholesterol*”

And why do I believe it, well my mum has been eating the stuff for years and her doctor is always amazed at how low her cholesterol level is considering her size.


This does not necessarily follow, William. A friend has frequently told me about a family member who has a consistently low cholesterol level, but does not take any medication or a commercial product to achieve this.


Now why didn’t I think of that.


Far more common is familial hypercholesterolemia, where you have high cholesterol because one of your parents did. That’s a major reason why an increasing number of people are taking statins and often suffering the side effects too.

Sophie Gilbert says:
16 August 2012

Love the last paragraph, Patrick! Let us be grateful the EFSA doesn’t move in mysterious ways.

I’ve voted for “Maybe – it depends on the particular claim”, but I must admit I’m more inclined to trust a healthy, balanced diet.


Thanks Sophie. I am a little like you, I’m not completely distrusting, some things I’ll take at face value. Such as I buy ‘light’ margarines – but perhaps I should take that with a pinch of salt as well (so to speak)?


There’s not much science about light spreads (I don’t think using the term ‘margarine’ would be allowed). They are lower fat simply because they contain water, and they include emulsifiers to prevent the fat and the water from separating. The same applies to low-fat mayonnaise (Yuk!) and various other products on the supermarket shelves.

When we were all advised to have a low fat diet I discovered how nice some breads are without being spread with any form of grease. We all have to have some fat in our diet but I’ll have mine as oily fish and chocolate.


Yes, we’ve written about the confusion of terms such a