Sifting through claims of probiotics

Kathleen Goldhar tried for years to figure out what was causing her young daughter to suffer from persistent, sometimes agonizing stomach pains. Since age three, the now seven-year-old girl had complained of intense cramps that would stick around for a couple of nights, subside and then return days or weeks later, usually when she ate.

Gregor Reid

Gregor Reid

Kathleen Goldhar tried for years to figure out what was causing her young daughter to suffer from persistent, sometimes agonizing stomach pains.

Since age three, the now seven-year-old girl had complained of intense cramps that would stick around for a couple of nights, subside and then return days or weeks later, usually when she ate.

With little insight from doctors, at least one trip to the hospital with cramps that caused the little girl to writhe in pain, and myriad tests producing no answers, the single mom took the advice of a nutritional consultant who recommended probiotics.

Goldhar began adding the powdered supplement to her daughter’s juice and within a couple of weeks noticed her complaints diminished as the pain appeared to lessen.

“They seem to work,” she said from Toronto. “It does seem to be a digestion issue and she seems to be able to sort of handle her food better. Her stomach doesn’t hurt as much.”

Goldhar is one of a growing number of people who have turned to the bacterial critters for a host of health reasons, including candida, digestion, brain development, diarrhea and boosting the immune system.

Probiotics are live organisms, usually helpful bacteria similar to those found in the human gut, which can change or restore the intestinal flora. They are present in such foods as sauerkraut, miso and fermented products, but can also be taken in pill or powder form.

There are billions of bacteria in the body — on skin, in the mouth, the intestines and other body parts — that can maintain general health by raising resistance to harmful bacteria.

The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live micro-organisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.”

The surge in popularity comes after manufacturers homed in on the potential benefits and began adding them to everything from yogurt, infant formula and juices to bread, chewing gum and chocolate. They can even be found in some floor cleaners and aftershaves.

Marketers have claimed the naturally occurring bacteria can shorten the duration of colds, prevent diarrhea, overcome allergies and even reduce the risk of certain cancers.

But health experts say the hoopla over probiotics has overshadowed actual scientific proof that they improve health, leading to confusion for consumers deluged with claims about products containing the micro-organisms.

Gregor Reid, who specializes in the study of probiotics, was on the panel that created the WHO’s definition of probiotics and says many of the products claiming to contain them actually don’t because they haven’t been proven in a human study to confer a specific health benefit.

“The majority of products on the market are not in fact probiotics,” said Reid, chair of human microbiology and probiotics at the Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ont.

“When you call something a probiotic, there should be an expectation that it’s been clinically tested and shown to have a benefit, and unfortunately many products don’t. So the first step is getting companies to do the studies.”

The problem is that there are many different strains of friendly bacteria that perform many different functions. Most have not been proven to be effective in clinical trials.

For consumers, it’s not clear on food labels how much and what type of bacteria a product contains, making it difficult to know if the probiotics are best suited for a particular health ailment.

Only some companies, like yogurt maker Dannon, list the specific bacteria that have been shown in trials to help with certain health issues, like regularity and digestion.

The company settled a $35-million lawsuit last year with customers dissatisfied over health claims it was making about some yogurt products, leading to more explicit labelling.

Some experts say that shouldn’t scare off consumers from using probiotics for conditions where there is some agreement on benefits, such as helping with some types of diarrhea, bowel regularity, colds and irritable bowel syndrome.

John Bienenstock, a professor of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, said people have to look very carefully at a particular product and determine exactly what it is.

“They have to look through the literature carefully, recognizing there is this problem of a lack of consistency of information and lack of consistency of products,” said Bienenstock, who’s also director of the Brain Body Institute.

“From a consumer point of view, it’s very important that when you go out and see what’s on the shelf, you know what’s on the bottle and what it can do … There are health benefits and there is hype.”

Regulatory agencies are trying to rein in the multi-billion-dollar industry, which saw consumer spending on probiotic supplements triple in the United States between 1994 and 2003.

The International Probiotics Association is planning a labelling scheme that would include a minimum bacterial count and an identification of the bacterial strain. There is also a move afoot in Europe to control the claims with regulation that demands companies produce the scientific evidence to support their labelling.

Health Canada has developed a probiotics monograph, which includes detailed information on acceptable health claims, associated doses, source materials and required risk information. It has also developed a guidance document that spells out when health claims can be made about food. The department website states that food products containing probiotics may have to remove the word if they’re not accompanied by “specific, validated statements about the benefits or effects of the micro-organism.”

Researchers say people need to scrutinize prebiotics just as closely. The sugar-type molecules are non-digestible foods that make their way through the digestive system and help good bacteria flourish. They are mostly found in carbohydrate fibres and can be taken in supplements or foods.

Reid said consumers have to research probiotic products themselves, using online sites like PubMed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed) to see what studies have been done to prove a company’s claims.

He would like to see it made easier to know the strain of bacteria, its properties, what it does, how long it lasts if it’s in powder form and where it goes in the body. Otherwise, he worries that skepticism over probiotics’ actual benefits will sully ones that have been scientifically proven to work.

“There needs to be more clinical evidence or companies need to stop calling their products probiotics,” he said.

“It shouldn’t be a fad. I think the ones that are properly scientifically documented will be here to stay, but the other ones hopefully don’t spoil it for everyone else.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Two people (not in photo) are facing charges following a Sept. 20, 2020 anti-racism rally in Red Deer.
Advocate file photo
Woman charged in Red Deer anti-racism rally going to trial

Calgary woman facing a charge of assault with a weapon in connection with Sept. 20, 2020 rally

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley was in Red Deer Wednesday and addressed a number of different political topics affecting central Alberta. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Notley talks RDC, UCP draft K-6 curriculum in visit to Red Deer

Rachel Notley had only proposed a solution hours before she arrived in… Continue reading

The Bowden Institution medium security facility near Bowden. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Two COVID-19 cases reported at Bowden Institution

Bowden Institution is dealing with two active COVID-19 cases. The positive cases… Continue reading

Photo by RANDY FIEDLER/Advocate staff BUDGET RURAL MEDICINE 2 - Dr. Fred Janke in his Sylvan Lake practice Wednesday. for story
Sylvan Lake doctor formerly accused of child sex crimes can practise again

Crown prosecutors dropped all charges against Dr. Fred Janke last November

Baseball on the Chalk Line of the Infield. Stock image
Innisfail to upgrade ball diamond to feature hardball facility

The Town of Innisfail will soon have a significantly upgraded baseball facility.… Continue reading

Westerner Park’s Exhibition Hall was used as a vaccination clinic on Wednesday. A steady stream of people came to get their COVID-19 shots either by appointment or as walk-ins. Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
No long lineups at walk-in vaccination site in Red Deer

A steady stream of people walked into Westerner Park on Wednesday to… Continue reading

Letisha Reimer is shown in a photo, part of a memorial to her outside Abbotsford Senior Secondary School in Abbotsford, B.C., Monday, Nov.7, 2016. A B.C. Supreme Court judge is expected to deliver her decision today over whether a man who stabbed two high school students is not criminally responsible because he had a mental disorder. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geordon Omand
Judge to rule on criminal responsibility of man who stabbed two B.C. students

NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. — A British Columbia Supreme Court judge is expected… Continue reading

File photo
Expert says Saskatchewan should consider more targeted vaccine plan as variants surge

SASKATOON — Nazeem Muhajarine says he feels a sense of relief after… Continue reading

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising Canada will slash its… Continue reading

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland holds a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
More supply needed to ease housing price crunch, but always more to do, Freeland says

OTTAWA — Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland says the country needs a boost… Continue reading

Smoke pours from the stacks at the Portlands Energy Centre in Toronto on Thursday January 15, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Risk experts say climate change to take big chunk of Canadian economy by 2050

One of the world’s largest insurers says Canadians will be more than… Continue reading

A Blanding’s turtle (Gabrielle Fortin/Contributed)
Earth Day: Finding hope in an old sweater

During the pandemic, many of us have spent several months at home.… Continue reading

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says 1.7 million reusable masks have been ordered at a cost of $4.2 million.” (Advocate file photo).
Alberta teachers and education minister swap accusations of politicizing curriculum

EDMONTON — Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says the group representing Alberta teachers… Continue reading

FILE - In this March 19, 2021, file photo, people take pictures of the Olympic rings installed by the Japan Olympic Museum in Tokyo. The vaccine rollout in Japan has been very slow with less than 1% vaccinated. This of course is spilling over to concerns about the postponed Tokyo Olympics that open in just over three months.(AP Photo/Hiro Komae, File)
Olympic bodies launch competitive series in virtual sports

Olympic body hopes to reach more young people

Most Read