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Are Probiotics a Scam?

by
author image Laura Agadoni
Laura Agadoni has been writing professionally since 1983. Her feature stories on area businesses, human interest and health and fitness appear in her local newspaper. She has also written and edited for a grassroots outreach effort and has been published in "Clean Eating" magazine and in "Dimensions" magazine, a CUNA Mutual publication. Agadoni has a Bachelor of Arts in communications from California State University-Fullerton.
Are Probiotics a Scam?
A woman is shopping for yogurt. Photo Credit Pavel Losevsky/Hemera/Getty Images

Probiotics themselves are not a scam, but from time to time, food manufacturers exaggerate their benefits, putting this degree of false advertising in the scam category. Ironically, the scandals from certain rogue advertisers make people skeptical of probiotics, but according to an article in Medical News Today, probiotics help people in the gastrointestinal department.

Probiotic Benefits

The word "probiotic" refers to bacteria that people use medically. These harmless or friendly bacteria are called lactobacilli and live in the vagina and in the small intestine. Some yogurt contains these bacteria. You should not write off probiotics because some companies put out irresponsible advertisements. An August 2008 "Public Library of Science Pathogens" published study findings that suggest besides the gastrointestinal benefits, probiotics can help the body’s inflammatory response to disease. For example, inflammation is a result of irritable bowel syndrome, and probiotics can minimize the inflammatory response, according to Dr. Liam O’Mahony, lead investigator in the study. Probiotics may also help build up an immunity to salmonella.

The Dannon Scam

One company that gave probiotics a bad name was Dannon. The company exaggerated the benefits of its Activia yogurt and DanActive dairy drinks. After the Federal Trade Commission called this company out on deceptive advertising claims, Dannon settled with the FTC and stopped making the claims. What got the FTC involved was Dannon’s declaration that one serving a day of its Activia yogurt keeps people regular. The truth is that the serving size to accomplish this is more likely three servings a day, not one. Consumers may remember the television ads that starred Jamie Lee Curtis who promoted Activia. While probiotics may help with gastrointestinal troubles, for a company to advertise medical benefits, the exact claims must be backed by scientific studies, which was not the case with the two Dannon products. Dannon’s claim regarding DanActive was that it helped prevent colds and the flu. Dannon claimed in its advertisements that scientific proof backed the claims, which was untrue. Dannon paid $21 million to resolve the allegations from 39 state attorneys general.

The Nestle Subsidiary Scam

The Nestle Subsidiary scam involved a product called Boost Kid Essentials, a drink for children ages 1 to 13. The drink came with a straw that contained the probiotics. The false claim was that this product would prevent kids from getting sick by preventing colds and flu, strengthen the immune system and help kids recover from diarrhea. David Vladeck of the FTC said that these claims did not stand up when scrutinized. Nestle HealthCare Nutrition, Inc. had to stop making these claims.

Bottom Line

Probiotics can treat diarrhea and can help prevent colds in adults and respiratory infections in children. However, trumped-up claims that some companies make are not always accurate. Be careful in the products you select. Some products contain the wrong strain of Lactobacillus called Lactobacillus bulgaricus, which is an unfriendly bacterium, according to Consumer Reports Health. The best ways to add probiotics to your diet are to read the labels on yogurt, miso, some soy drinks and fermented and unfermented milk. The label would say “live and active cultures” or lactobacillus.

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