I often say this to my patients. So what are Probiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria or yeast products that benefit the
host. They are found in fermented milk products such as
yogurt and kefir, as well as in dietary supplements.
Probiotics help keep the gut healthy and prevent conditions
such as irritable bowel syndrome, food allergies, fatigue,
depression and arthritis.
Along with improved intestinal health, probiotics help enhance the immune function, decrease vaginal and bladder infections and reduce cholesterol. The two most common and well researched probiotics are Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus bifidus. Health food stores, drug stores and grocery stores sell probiotics, but unfortunately they often are not what the labels claim.
Probiotics are not regulated by the FDA for purity and viability. A pure product is free of contaminants and actually contains the strain listed on the label. Viability means the numbers of live organisms claimed on the label are there when it leaves the supplier, there when it reached the store, and remain there for months, not just days or weeks after shipping.
Two studies, both done in Seattle WA, have raised concern about probiotic purity and viability. The first study was done in 1990 at the University of Washington and the second by Bastyr University in 2004. Each time from 16-20 probiotic products were gathered from local health food stores and examined. Results showed that most of the probiotics were not as labeled, potentially unsafe for public consumption and often dead.
Specifically, the 1990 study found only four of the 16 products contained live Lactobacillus acidophilus and 11 of the 16 had contaminants, some of them not fit for human consumption. The 2004 study found only one product with probiotics exactly as stated on the label, 30 percent had contaminants and 20 percent were dead. Culturelle Lactobacillus GG was the one that was true to the label. It was a refrigerated brand, and was the most expensive.
All refrigerated brands had some acidophilus present, although purity was an issue with both refrigerated and non-refrigerated brands. Refrigerated brands that didn’t hold up to label specifications include Natural Factors Acidophilus and bifidus, Natures Way Acidophilus, Natures Way Primadophilus, Solgar Multi billion Dophilus with FOS, Town and Country Acidophilus, KAL Acidophilus Probioitc 4 and Natures Life Milk free acidophilus.
All room temperature products were either dead, contained contaminants and/or contained bacteria that were not as labeled. Products evaluated included Bartell Brand Acidophilus, Nature’s Bounty Acidophilus, Natrol Acidophilus, Twin Labs Yeast Fighter, Natural Brand Acidophilus Plus and Rite Aid Drugstores Acidophilus.
These studies raise several concerns for consumers of probiotic products. Mislabeled products will fail to produce the desired results claimed by legitimate research. Mislabeled products with impurities can pose a health threat, especially to those who are immune compromised or susceptible. Whether the problems with these products occurred at the manufacturer, during shipping or while on the retailer’s shelf was not determined by these studies.
What to do
•Buy only refrigerated brands from reputable health food store suppliers. •Buy the most expensive one. •Focus on Lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidus as these have the most research behind them. •Historically, due to improper freezing-drying techniques, mixed blends were more likely to self destruct. I still recommend “simple is better” and suggest an emphasis on just Lactobacillus acidophilus or acidophilus and bifidus combinations. •Ask your supplier for proof (certificate of analysis) that their products are what the label claims, not just when it left the supplier, but after it has sat on the retailers shelf for an extended period of time.
I offer my patients Metagenics probiotic dairy free acidophilus and bifidus strains. I have had these evaluated by the medical school that has most thoroughly researched these strains for purity and viability, and on both counts they hold up.
I often emphasize quality when it comes to diet, exercise and nutrition. Probiotics offer an excellent example of quality concerns when it comes to natural treatments. For the general consumer, it comes to trust in their suppliers, as they are not in a position to have an independent analysis of every product they buy. Unfortunately for some suppliers in this profit driven era, even the natural health care market is not immune from putting profit before quality.
Eventually, as wisdom and compassion usher in the Sustainable Revolution (see Physician Heal thy Planet newsletter), I expect quality will rise to the forefront of marketing. For now, I hope this month’s newsletter will help provide some guidance on this subject.
Jon Dunn, ND
Reference: the following link is for the 2004 study I have cited.