Probiotics grow in popularity but don’t always deliver on promises

Probiotic supplements and foods containing “friendly” bacteria or yeast have become popular options for people hoping to improve bowel function or boost immunity. But many customers are confused by the vast array of choices.

A new report from Consumer.Lab.com covering more than two dozen probiotics takes much of the mystery out of the remedies. It also contains an important warning: Customers who don’t do their homework might not get what they want or are paying for.

Tests by ConsumerLab.com found that the actual number of living organisms in probiotics don’t always match the claims on the label. “Probiotics can be helpful, but you need to choose products carefully,” says Tod Cooperman, M.D., President of ConsumerLab.com. “Not every product has what it claims and even those that do may not have the right type and amount of organisms for your condition.”

Probiotics represent one of the largest and fastest growing segments of the dietary supplement market, with sales up 18.9% to $636 million in 2010, according to Nutrition Business Journal. A survey of over 10,000 supplement users by ConsumerLab.com in November 2011 found probiotics were used by 34.1% of women and 27.7% of men. Probiotics are also one of the most expensive dietary supplements, with a daily dose averaging $1.06.

Of twelve probiotic products for adults and children selected for testing by ConsumerLab.com, two delivered far fewer organisms than promised. One contained just 57% of the organisms listed on the label and the other had 65%. Still, all products provided at least one billion organisms per day, an amount that may provide some benefit.

Products were also tested for microbial contaminants and pathogens, but none were found. Tests also showed that products sold as caplets and enteric-coated capsules were able to properly release their ingredients.

As explained in the report, certain types of probiotics have been shown to work for specific medical conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), vaginal infection, H. pylori infection, forms of diarrhea, and cold and flu.

But consumers who lack this information are left to confront a daunting array probiotics on the market. For example, ConsumerLab.com’s found products listing anywhere from one to over 30 different strains of Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces (a yeast), or Streptococcus. The quantity of organisms varied from one billion to more than 250 billion in a daily dose, a difference of more than a 25,000%.

“Before buying a probiotic, take time to understand what it can do, choose a product with the right type and number of organisms, and compare prices, which can range from under 20 cents to over $5 per day,” Cooperman says.

He also suggests that products be stored in sealed containers out of heat, light, and humidity.

In addition, he says it’s important for users to read the storage instructions on the label. For example, some probiotics require constant refrigeration, even if the bottle hasn’t been opened.

ConsumerLab.com is a leading provider of consumer information and independent evaluations of products that affect health and nutrition. Reviews of other popular types of supplements are available from www.consumerlab.com. Subscription to ConsumerLab.com is available online. The company is privately held and based in Westchester, New York. It has no ownership from, or interest in, companies that manufacture, distribute, or sell consumer products.

Enter your email to subscribe to Dr. Walt's blogs.

You have successfully subscribed to the newsletter

There was an error while trying to send your request. Please try again.

Dr. Walt Larimore will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing.