Probiotic drinks and yogurts, popular with millions of consumers trying to stay healthy, don’t really help people’s digestion, finds a recent study.
Products such as Yakult, which are sold at a premium over standard yogurts, cannot be proved to either boost the immune system or aid digestive health.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has examined more than 800 health claims from food companies, including those submitted by the multi-billion pound probiotic industry.
EFSA’s independent panel of scientists found that the claims that these products could strengthen the body’s defences and reduce gut problems were either so general as to be inadmissible, or could not be shown to have the claimed effect.
In a separate ruling, the panel examined a dossier of 12 studies submitted by Yakult for its own strain of probiotic bacteria, Lactobacillus casei shirota, reports the Telegraph.
It found that all were inadequate to support the company’s claim that its products maintained immune defences against the common cold.
EFSA’s ruling is being challenged by the industry, but if these appeals fail the companies will no longer be allowed to market the foods as aiding digestion or helping the immune system in future.
Yakult in its most recent TV advertisement asserts: “Yakult’s billions of friendly bacteria help keep your gut healthy and a healthy gut helps make for better digestion and stronger natural defences.”
Danone, Britain’s biggest manufacturer of probiotic drinks and yogurts, said none of its products was subject to the ruling as it had withdrawn its claims that Actimel and Activia boosted the immune system and aided digestive health.
Nearly 60 percent of British households regularly buy probiotic drinks.
They are part of a whole category of heavily marketed new foods, variously called nutraceuticals or functional foods, making claims to promote our health. Human beings have managed without them for millennia, but in just 10 years an extraordinary number of us have been persuaded by the food industry that we need them for the sake of our health.
Nearly 60% of UK households now regularly buy probiotic drinks. The market is worth £164m a year in this country alone. How and why that happened is a fascinating commentary of the nature of advanced capitalism and its genius for making consumers want whatever it has to sell. The food market in affluent countries is saturated. Growth cannot come just from making us eat more, since there is a limit to our physical needs. But tap into our deep-seated emotional needs and, as political commentator Neal Lawson points out in his new book All Consuming, there is no limit to what we can be persuaded to buy.
Yakult, a yoghurt drink made by the Japanese company of the same name, was the pioneer. It burst on to the European market in the 1990s as a fermented milk drink with an added strain of healthy bacterium, Lactobacillus casei Shirota. It was launched in the UK in 1996 in a heavily sweetened drink in what look like little toy milk bottles. The utilitarian design and miniaturisation of its packaging managed to give it both an aura of healthy, almost medicinal, purpose and to make it as attractive to children as doll’s house furniture. Sales took off, helped considerably by a marketing campaign worth £40m in the UK alone. Danone was quick to follow with Actimel, also packaged in dinky bottles; it now has 64% of the UK market, outselling Yakult. Danone subsequently formed a strategic alliance with Yakult and owns 20% of its shares.
So how did these drinks gain such a hold? Thanks to a detailed submission about Actimel by Danone’s advertising agency to the industry’s advertising effectiveness awards in 2006, I was able to gain an inside view of how the marketers managed to persuade us to buy their probiotics on a mass scale.
In 1999, that submission explains, Danone had set its sights on the UK market for yoghurt and “Actimel was chosen as lead foot soldier” with the aim of getting us “drinking Actimel every day”. Persuading us that we needed to have a daily dose of this sort of premium-priced functional food was not plain sailing. Actimel spent millions on a TV advertising campaign in Britain in 2001, but by 2002 it was clear the British public was not entirely convinced by Actimel. “Forty per cent of Actimel’s advertising audience [held] a highly sceptical view as to its benefit …” the submission explained.