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Marketers claim probiotics in foods have health benefits; scientists say more studies are needed

Ready for some live, active cultures in your chocolate? How about your breakfast cereal?

Probiotics, the so-called "friendly" bacteria with health benefits, have busted out of the dairy case and are colonizing other areas of the supermarket.

The bacteria, which occur naturally in fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir and miso, are thought to aid digestion and support the immune system by balancing the intestinal ecosystem.

But as manufacturers add the microbes to everything from infant formula and fruit juice to pizza, muffins and granola bars, experts caution that the word "probiotic" is widely misused by industry and misunderstood by consumers.

Of thousands of bacterial strains, only a few dozen have been tested for health benefits. And though studies suggest some products may offer relief from digestive issues, it's unknown whether healthy people benefit from snacking on live "bugs."

A pending lawsuit alleges Dannon misled consumers about benefits of Activia and DanActive, marketed as probiotics.

Dannon denies using deceptive advertising and is standing by its supporting claims and studies. But a spokesman agreed it's buyer beware at the market.

"We're on the front lines; we see a lot of confusion," said Dannon's Michael Newirth.

There is no standard definition of probiotics, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but scientists generally say the term refers to foods, beverages or supplements containing live microorganisms that studies show promote health when people take enough of them. Without studies, they shouldn't be called probiotic, scientists say.

"Sadly, of the hundreds of new products launched in recent years, very few have been shown to be probiotic," said Gregor Reid, a microbiologist at the University of Western Ontario and president of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics.

Though probiotics are not new — they also are found in breast milk — researchers are just beginning to understand their role in regulating the immune system and managing disease.

More research is needed to show benefits for most conditions, including cancer, oral health, allergies and obesity.

Probiotics interact with the body's bacteria, said expert Gary Huffnagle at the University of Michigan Medical School. A product that works for one person might not work for another.

Still, he says probiotics are safe, and your own trials should yield answers in a few weeks.

Marketers claim probiotics in foods have health benefits; scientists say more studies are needed 07/31/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 5:30am]

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