The popularity of probiotic supplements is undeniable. Probiotics were the highest-selling ingredient in the U.S. natural channel last year, according to SPINS, and were the second-bestselling supplement in the mainstream channel. According to Euromonitor, probiotics will be the fastest-growing supplement in North America through 2021. Nutritional Outlook named probiotics a 2017 Ingredient to Watch.
With so much hype around these beneficial microbes, it’s all the more critical that probiotic makers cut through the clutter with information that is accurate, truthful, and substantiated by solid science. With this in mind, we asked probiotic-ingredient leader Ganeden (Cleveland) to share five of the most common myths associated with probiotics.
Myth: Fermented Foods Are Probiotic
Given the popularity of probiotics, many fermented foods are touting themselves as “probiotic” and “cultured.” But are consumers really getting true probiotic benefits when they consume fermented foods? Not necessarily, Ganeden says, for two reasons:
First, while many of these foods do use naturally occurring live cultures to begin the fermentation process, often these products are pasteurized for a longer shelf life. Pasteurization requires heat that will kill almost all living bacteria, even the good guys.
Secondly, if the fermented product is raw, meaning it was never pasteurized, it will contain bacteria—but not necessarily bacteria that can be called “probiotic.” The World Health Organization says that the product must contain “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host” in order to be a probiotic. The organisms used to produce the fermented food most likely have not been studied to show that it provides a health benefit to the consumer, Ganeden says.
Myth: Multiple Probiotic Strains Are Better Than a Single Strain
Is more better when it comes to probiotic strains? Not necessarily, Ganeden says. The number of strains in a product doesn’t mean much if those strains are not proven to be effective. A studied, single-strain product proven to be effective and viable through its shelf life could outperform an unproven multi-strain blend.
Ganeden adds: “What’s truly important is not the number of strains but rather the quality and safety of a strain in a product. It’s also vital to know how strains interact when blended—some can cancel one another out, for example. Therefore, it is important to use the same level of diligence reviewing blends as it is reviewing a single strain.”
Myth: Probiotics Work When Applied in Topical Beauty Products
Does a probiotic antiaging topical face cream confer the same kinds of benefits that taking an ingestible probiotic supplement does? “There are a number of challenges to making an actual probiotic beauty product, and it is highly unlikely that any company will be able to produce and legally market any such product,” says David Keller, vice president of scientific operations, Ganeden. According to Keller, here is one important reason why probiotics and topical skincare don’t always mix.
“You need data to ensure that this specific strain survives at adequate levels until the end of shelf life and that it will grow on the skin after application. Dead bacteria are not probiotics!” he says. “Most probiotics are susceptible to the rigors of manufacturing and shelf life, particularly in a topical cosmetic product, and will not survive throughout the long room-temperature shelf life required of these products. Even spore-forming bacteria that may survive will not germinate on the skin to create cells that will have a benefit on the skin. To date, I am not aware of any strains that have been shown to meet these criteria that have been included in a beauty product.”
Another reason relates to FDA itself. According to Keller, a recent FDA warning letter stated that “FDA’s guideline is that the Aerobic Plate Counts (APC) should not be greater than 500 Colony Forming Units (CFU)/g for eye-area cosmetics, and 1,000 CFU/g for all other products.” He says, “Considering that most probiotics require billions of CFUs to be effective, if FDA applied this guideline, it is highly unlikely that the low levels of allowable bacteria above would offer any probiotic activity or skincare benefit.”
Myth: You Need More than 1 Billion CFUs for Probiotics to Work
Is there an ideal number of colony forming units (CFUs) that every probiotic product should have? According to George Paraskevakos, executive director of the International Probiotics Association (IPA), “The truth is in the science. We have seen published articles and clinical trials with probiotics that vary in range of total CFUs. Bigger isn’t necessarily always better, albeit I do feel there is use for larger CFU applications than we have seen it in published studies—but I can say the same for the lower CFU counts as well.”
When it comes to determining the ideal number of CFUs, science is your best guide, he says. “Ultimately, it is what can be scientifically justified on a strain-by-strain basis and supported by peer-reviewed clinical trials.”
Myth: The “Live & Active Cultures” Seal Confirms That a Yogurt is “Probiotic”
The “Live & Active Cultures” seal is a trademark owned by the nonprofit trade association the National Yogurt Association (NYA). According to NYA, “all manufacturers of refrigerated yogurt whose products contain at least 100 million cultures of Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus per gram at the time of manufacture, and whose frozen yogurt contains at least 10 million cultures per gram at the time of manufacture” can use the seal.
According to Ganeden, however, products bearing the “Live & Active Cultures” seal may not necessarily be probiotic because it’s uncertain whether probiotic bacteria are guaranteed to be viable by the time the consumer eats the product.
The NYA’s criteria is “at the time of manufacture,” meaning that those bacteria were present at the time the yogurt was made. Ganeden points out, however, that depending on the probiotic strain, the beneficial microbes may not survive depending on storage conditions, post-fermentation heat treatment, and other subsequent processing and storing procedures. In addition, it says, not all of these ingredients will have been proven to confer a health benefit on the host—which is the very definition of a probiotic.