Low consumer awareness about food, nutrition and health provides an opportunity for food processing industry, especially those who are socially irresponsible, to seduce the consumer through many unsubstantiated health claims for the products from their stable. It is true that there are food laws and regulations in some countries purportedly to prevent such frauds, but the defaulters still get away through ineffective implementation or exploitation of the loopholes in the statute books. If such things happen in countries like the US, the UK, Australia and other well regulated markets, one can imagine the situation in some of the developing countries with vast illiterate population with very inefficient safety vigilance regime.
Probiotics are supposed to offer many health advantages if one goes through the published literature, most of them being of academic nature with very little hard and reliable evidence. According to FAO/WHO definition, the probiotics constitute a group of "microorganisms when administered live in adequate quantities can confer a health benefit to the host". Unfortunately the industry takes advantage of the vagueness inherent in the above definition, especially regarding the nature of health benefits, and makes unsustainable claims to attract unsuspecting consumers. Lactobacillus bacteria(LAB) and Bifidus bacteria are commonly used in probiotic food products and in order to qualify to be called probiotic, the concerned products should have not less than 4 billion live cells of the organism used. Besides the above two, a few other bacteria and yeast strains are also said to have beneficial health effects though to the same extent as LAB and Bifidus.
According to claims made by some manufacturers, probiotic microbes provide protection to the beneficial intestinal bugs while inhibiting pathogens that cause many diseases related to Gastrointestinal tract in human beings. Other claims include alleviation of chronic intestinal inflammation and prevention of pathogen induced diarrhea, urogenital infection and atopic diseases. Claims are also made that probiotics can give relief to lactose intolerance, fight colon cancer, reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, improve immuno functions, fight against infections, bring relief to Intestinal Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and colitis etc. While thousands of papers have been published in international scientific journals about some or the other beneficial uses of probiotic microorganisms based on laboratory studies, there is still many unanswered questions regarding their effect under actual field conditions on live human subjects.
It is against this context that one has to see the recent action taken by the The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in forcing the industry in its member countries to obtain permission for making such claims for which scientific proof was demanded. About 8000 health claims made by various manufacturers regarding the beneficial impact of their products on human health were assessed deploying competent independent scientists and the agency brought out the shocking fact that most of these claims were unproven though industry has been making these claims to attract unsuspecting consumers for years. EFSA concluded that the evidence the industry had submitted to support its claims that various food additives could strengthen the body's defenses, improve immune function, effective against common cold and reduce gut problems were either so general that they were not acceptable or the claimed effect could not be demonstrated. In some countries like the UK more than half the population regularly buy probiotic products believing the claims made and there are over 44000 such products that are marketed world over with all types of claims.
If the above assessment is confirmed there is no justification to use the term probiotics on labels unless there is proper understanding about the meaning it carries, conveyed to the consumers unequivocally. Here is where bodies like the FAO and WHO have lot to do in cooperation with the scientific institutions of the member countries. Sooner it is done better it would be for the consumer community which has been using these products, paying a premium price but unsuspecting about the actual impact of these products on their health. .