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When is a Probiotic not a Probiotic?
There is continued public interest in the area of probiotics and health, but have you noticed something odd about the word ‘probiotic’ on yogurt packs? For the very observant, you may have noticed that the word has largely disappeared.
To appreciate why this has happened you need to be aware of the official definition of “probiotic”, as agreed upon by the World Health Organisation; “Live microorganisms (mainly bacteria) which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host” Hence the definition of probiotic contains an inherent health claim.
Stating on a product that it is, or it contains, probiotics is not the same as saying the product contains bacteria as an ingredient. It is more than this as it implies that the product contains a substance that may be beneficial for health. And anything that states, suggests or implies a relationship between food and health, can be considered to be a health claim under European food regulations.
For this reason, the term ‘probiotic’, when used on a food label, is considered to be a health claim which must be authorised and listed on the European Union Register. Currently there are no authorised claims for probiotics. This has caused the Advertising Standards Agency, the UK advertising watchdog, to recently uphold a complaint and rule the use of the word ‘probiotic’ to be an unauthorised implied health claim under EU rules. The company concerned has now been forced to change the term, which they have replaced with ‘live’.
The concern in the EU is that consumers may deduce that any yogurt with ‘probiotic’ on the label, would improve their health, even if the particular strain of bacteria in the yogurt had not been studied or proven to have any benefit.
The Science Behind Health Claims
The position of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), who evaluate the science behind health claims, is that while there is evidence that some specific bacterial strains can have beneficial effects, those effects cannot be extended to all of the different strains available in the marketplace. It is important to remember that the effectiveness of probiotics is strain-specific, which means that each single probiotic strain has to be tested to assess its potential health benefits. EFSA are in the process of looking at these on an individual basis but their opinion on these is still pending.
In the meantime, we can still of course enjoy yogurt as a nutritious product, but label claims on probiotics will need to await EFSA’s final opinion.
Ayela Spiro, British Nutrition Foundation – QCS Expert Nutrition Contributor