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Probiotics move way beyond yogurt (News from the Natural Products Expo)

March 11, 2011|By Shari Roan, Los Angeles Times
  • Probiotics are turning up in more foods than just yogurt.
Probiotics are turning up in more foods than just yogurt. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

ANAHEIM -- Probiotics are cropping up in more types of foods. But some experts worry that the benefits of probiotics will be diluted as the substances move beyond their yogurt and milk base.

Probiotics are live microorganisms, usually bacteria, that are found in the human gut. Adding these "good" types of bacteria to foods can augment the body's natural supply, producing benefits that range from better digestion to an improved immune system, according to some studies. A survey by ConsumerLab.com last year found that about 30% of consumers use probiotics. According to Packaged Facts, the number of new products introduced worldwide listing “probiotic” or “prebiotic” in the ingredients list increased from 48 in 2004 to 279 in 2008.

On display Friday at the Natural Products Expo in Anaheim were pizzas, chocolate bars, pasta, breads and even pet foods with probiotics.

But the industry may be growing too fast for its own good. There are several issues. One is that probiotics are usually identified by their strains. However, a limited number of strains have been documented as effective, and yet manufacturers are beginning to use "undocumented strains" and are even patenting their own strains. There are no Food and Drug Administration regulation on how strains are labeled and marketed.

Another issue is whether probiotics can move into less-hospitable products -- such as dry goods -- and retain their efficacy. Live bacteria may not be sustained in dry products. Some manufacturers may add probiotics and label the product as such in order to win customers despite the lack of evidence that the bacteria in the product is alive. Nevertheless, consumers want probiotics and are betting that they'll get some benefit in the growing array of products on store shelves.

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