Do health claims for yoghurt products stack up?

Claims about yoghurt products are as widespread as the bacteria in your digestive system. Symbio Probalance and Yoplait Elivae claim to “aid digestive balance”. Moogurt pouches boast “probiotic goodness” and you can also buy fermented milk drinks to “boost your friendly bacteria”, and “help keep your immune system healthy”.

Most of the claims relate to probiotics – live bacteria that improve the health of your gut and help with digestion. But from January 2016, companies need to notify Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) about their claims and have evidence, including human studies, to back them up.

The Ministry for Primary Industries, the agency that enforces the Food Standards Code, says the claims we found on products will need to be notified to FSANZ. To date, no notifications for probiotic health claims in New Zealand have been submitted, although one has been notified in Australia.

We checked out yoghurt products and asked companies to substantiate their probiotic claims.

Drinks

Yakult’s fermented milk drink contains the Shirota strain of Lactobacillus casei. The Shirota strain is unique to Yakult and is claimed to have 6.5 billion live bacteria in each 65ml bottle.

Activate Body Boost probiotic drink contains Bifidobacterium BB-12, which is trademarked by manufacturer Goodman Fielder as Bifido-Defensis. Although nowhere on the packaging does it state how many bacteria each 100ml bottle contains.

The claims for these products are similar. Yakult claims on its website probiotics can enhance the immune system and stimulate the digestive process. It also states its Shirota strain has been shown to increase the numbers of other beneficial bacteria in the large intestine. Activate Body Boost claims to balance your natural intestinal flora, help keep your immune system healthy and your digestive system strong and functional.

Both companies provided us with published studies. These included human studies on the survival of the probiotic strains through the digestive system.

Yakult said it was aware of the January deadline and it will review requirements closer to the cut-off date.

Activate is marketed as a dietary supplement so doesn’t have to meet the code requirements. However, we think Activate should state the number of live bacteria so consumers know what they are getting.

Yoghurt

Symbio Probalance contains the trademarked Bifidobacterium lactis DR10. Each serve contains more than five billion DR10 probiotics, which the packaging says is “scientifically proven to aid digestive balance”.

Fonterra provided studies on DR10, including human studies, to support its claim, and studies on DR10's survival in the gastro-intestinal tract.

Anchor Uno is marketed to children and contains 1.5 billion Bifidobacterium lactis per 150g. It also has five vitamins and minerals for “immunity support”. This claim is pre-approved by FSANZ so no further substantiation or notification is required.

Fonterra, which makes Symbio and Anchor Uno, is reviewing its products prior to the rules coming into effect. As a result, Symbio will have packaging changes.

Yoplait Elivae contains a blend of probiotics – eight billion per 125g serve – to “aid digestive balance”. The company says it conducted a detailed scientific review before launching Yoplait Elivae and is working towards the January deadline.

At least the above products tell you how many bacteria you’re getting in a serving. Moogurt pouches – which claim probiotic goodness – and The Collective Probiotic Yoghurt Suckies both list the types of bacteria they contain but the packaging doesn't state the actual amounts.

Why is that important? Probiotics need to be present in sufficient numbers to make a difference. They have to survive food processing and storage, the journey through your digestive system and the environment of your large intestine. The code states fermented milk drinks and yoghurt products must contain at least a million live bacteria per gram (although to make a claim there must be 100 million bacteria per gram). If a company is making a claim the product contains probiotics, it must disclose the number of bacteria on its product packaging.

Expert opinion

What do health experts have to say about the health benefits of these “good” bugs?

University of Otago department of medicine Professor Julian Crane says there’s evidence supporting the effectiveness of probiotics, but it’s only in particular circumstances and the effects are specific to the species and strain of bacteria.

Wellington Asthma Research Group’s senior research fellow Dr Kristin Wickens agrees the effectiveness is species and strain specific. In 2008, the group published results from a double-blind randomised controlled trial of the effects of two different probiotics on preventing the development of eczema and allergic sensitisation. Only one probiotic was effective in preventing the development of eczema, the other had no effect.

Registered dietitian Courtney Hibberd says probiotics can be effective in some cases. “The best documented evidence is around certain probiotics and the treatment of acute gastroenteritis and reducing the risk of pre-term babies developing a disease called necrotising enterocolitis. Certain probiotics could be considered to reduce the risk of antibiotic associated diarrhoea,” she says.

In 2014, the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics published a consensus statement. The panel agreed most probiotics supported healthy gut bacteria and a healthy digestive tract.

However, the panel also concluded that for other benefits the evidence is promising but hasn’t been linked to a cross-section of probiotics.

There’s no solid evidence that taking daily probiotics will benefit otherwise healthy people. In Europe companies can’t use the word “probiotics” on packaging. This is despite approximately 260 probiotic health claims being submitted for inclusion in the European Food Safety Authority’s list of permitted health claims. The authority found none stacked up.

Report by Belinda Castles.