Many different types of products display the word ‘probiotic’ on the label. Fermented dairy products, which are the traditional probiotic delivery foods, newer foods to the probiotic category such as snack foods and teas, pet foods, dietary supplements, and even household cleaners and mattresses claim to be ‘probiotic.’
But what does ‘probiotic’ on the label tell you about the product being sold? In today’s marketplace, it might not tell you much.
Tuned-in scientists know what the term ‘probiotic’ means. Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. But to some marketers, ‘probiotic’ is little more than a popular consumer trend that when added to the label may increase sales. In the Unites States, there is no codified definition of the word probiotic, so misuse of the word would only be scrutinized if regulators deemed that it constituted labeling that was not truthful or was misleading.
Probiotic research is a serious clinical and scientific endeavor. Much probiotic research falls into the medical space and evidence-base usage of probiotics by healthcare providers benefits patients and consumers. But the majority of products on the market today do not communicate essential components of product quality – identity, purity and potency – resulting in a lack of confidence by healthcare providers. Although these attributes are guaranteed in drugs marketed in the United States, most probiotics are marketed as dietary supplements or foods, where premarket assessment of quality is not required. Manufacturers must meet current good manufacturing practices, although FDA inspections have found compliance failings in supplement manufacturing. Further, the microbiological nature of probiotics imposes additional necessary features to the process, including the need to identify on the label the genus, species, (subspecies if needed), and strain of all microbes contained in the product and viable potency (typically in colony forming units or CFUs) through the end of shelf life. Indicating the mg per dose for a probiotic is a meaningless measure of potency.
Recognizing that identity, purity and potency of probiotic dietary supplements is often not disclosed on product labels, a group of experts recently collaborated on an open-access scientific publication to discuss options for probiotic product manufacturers to assure and communicate product quality to end-users. This group of experts advises the United States Pharmacopeia on probiotics. The paper advocates for manufacturers to (1) engage in third party verification of probiotic supplements and (2) communicate this by using a verification seal on the product label. This would enable both consumers and healthcare providers to determine that product quality is guaranteed through best practices.
Although focused on probiotic supplements, a similar approach could be undertaken for probiotic-containing foods. Certainly, the principles of third party verification of quality in manufacturing, disclosure of all probiotic strain designations, and viability of probiotic through the end of shelf life could be transparently communicated to consumers.
Such action on the part of probiotic manufacturers is greatly needed and would improve consumer trust in probiotic products.