/ 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

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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 as ‘light’ and ‘low fat’ which is something we’ve been working on at Which? https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/light-food-calorie-content-confusion/


I am a rose-tinted sceptical so I never take anything entirely at face value, especially claims that something I don’t like will do me good. I usually rely on my gut instincts which, on this issue, appear to be justified. The way these these products are promoted exemplifies another piece of manufacturer’s psychological manipulation – that we will trust something to do our insides good if it tastes awful, is put in an ugly bottle, and is given a dreadful name. Truly, “Yuk!” is the word. Thank goodness EFSA has been effer-so good and neutralised the bad claims.

I find that breakfast including a little cereal plus yoghurt, and a mix of fruit including a couple of dates, followed by a cup of tea is all the stimulus my body needs to get me going.


I don’t take much notice of anyone’s advertising claims for anything.

I take it this stuff is supposed to make you “regular” or something. I guess if you think it does and that’s what you want then it isn’t going to do you any harm. But most importantly if things have recently changed in that department for no obvious reason it is vitally important that you seek proper medical advice rather than relying on over the counter remedies.

David Bourke says:
26 August 2012

Codex Alimentarius is now law in Europe. The chairman of the UN Codex Alimentarius Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses (CCNFSDU), Dr. Rolf Grossklaus, has publicly stated that nutrients should be treated as toxins and that nutrition has no role in human health.

Did you know that the average time spent on nutrition education for American doctors over their four years of training is two and a half hours? And that, of 135 US medical schools, only 30 require their students to learn anything at all about nutrition?

Consequently, when it comes to eating for health, I take all EFSA pronouncements with a therapeutically large dollop of salt (pink Himalayan rock salt, to be precise).


I went into the shops and happened to come across some probiotics – I couldn’t spot any misleading claims, so it looks like they’ve already taken action for their bottles. Hopefully the TV ads will follow, if they haven’t already. The ‘damage’ in people’s minds that these are scientifically backed as good for your gut may already have been done though.


I think you are right about people will continue to believe what they have been told.

We have many examples of advertising being withdrawn after complaints and scrutiny by the Advertising Standards Authority. The unscrupulous companies have already benefitted from the results of advertising and memory of these adverts after they have been withdrawn. What should happen, of course, is that the adverts are scrutinised before they see the light of day.