When is a probiotic not a probiotic?

In his novel 1984 George Orwell predicted a world in which thought was controlled by restricting language. It is one of the more scary aspects of a politically correct world that this is happening in many ways as Orwell foresaw. It might be a bit exaggerated to see Orwellian overtones in it but when it is mooted that certain words might be “banned” (say from advertising) it does send a doublespeak chill down the spine. It helps of course, if you can understand why a word might be banned as for instance, the word “probiotic” will be banned from use on products in the European Union.

Probiotics are living organisms, usually bacteria, that have a beneficial effect on the organism in which they live. Most commonly the word is used these days to describe the health promoting bacteria that live in the human intestinal tract like Lacotbacillus and Bifidobacteria. As of December 14th 2012 the word “probiotic” will not be allowed to appear on products in the European Union.

This is happening because under the EU nutrition and healthcare regulation (NHCR) probiotics have not been granted health claims status. This means that probiotics in general have not been accepted as having health promoting outcomes. To date 224 claims for health effects caused by specific probiotic species of bacteria have been authorised by the European NHCR but more than 1500 applications for claims regarding health effects of other species and strains remain unauthorised and will remain so as of December 14th.

To appreciate why this is happening you need to be aware that the accepted definition of “probiotic”, as agreed upon by the World Health Organisation, is “Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” Hence the definition of probiotic contains an inherent health claim. The concern among administrators in the EU is that if consumers are aware of this definition, they would deduce that any yoghurt with “probiotic” on the label, for example, would measurably improve their health, even if the particular strain of bacteria in the yoghurt had not been studied and proven to have benefits.

The position of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is that while some specific bacterial strains have shown proven actions those actions cannot be extended to all of the strains available in the marketplace. Keep in mind though that the EFSA was established by EU politicians to restore consumer confidence in food after several food scares, notably “Mad Cow” (BSE or bovine spongiform encephalopathy). Whereas BSE has no direct implications for regulation of probiotics, other safety considerations, like antibiotic resistance, toxins and virulence factors, are key drivers in the EFSA’s attitude to probiotics. The EFSA also demands a strain-specific approach on health claims, stating that probiotic properties are “strain and species specific”.

This banning of the word “probiotic” is probably a uniquely European situation but the response of the marketers of probiotic products to it is still instructive. DuPont, Health and Nutrition, health platform leader Michael Bond has said that the global giant remains optimistic about the European probiotics market. DuPont are of course can afford to be, and are, complying with the need to remove the word “probiotic” from labels and are conducting strain specific trials for their probiotics that are in line with EFSA requirements. Companies who will take longer to do such trialling due to cost and size restrictions will no doubt remove “probiotic” from labels and replace it with the strain present since it is the word probiotic itself that is deemed to be making a health claim. Even in this last regard, EFSA’s health claims panel chair Professor Ambroise Martin said that some health claims for probiotics relating to transit time, as an example, could be approved within one or two years. Undoubtedly the industry will go through adjustment but the probiotics market is strong and the consumer well educated so there is valid expectation that it will survive the changes.

So here’s a riddle for you; when is a probiotic not a probiotic? Answer: when it’s in Europe.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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