by Marion Nestle
Sep 29 2009

Health claims for yogurt? Really?

I like yogurt.  But do probiotics – those “friendly” bacteria in yogurt and  increasingly added to other foods – do anything for you beyond making yogurt taste good?  I wrote about probiotics in What to Eat at some length.  Tara Parker-Pope has a quick summary of the state of the research in today’s New York Times.

The quick answer is mixed.  It includes a lot of  “maybe” or “probably,” always a sign that whatever probiotics might do isn’t going to be much.  The answer is probably yes for infant diarrhea and, maybe, irritable bowel syndrome, and maybe or no for just about everything else.

In the absence of FDA action to regulate misleading health claims, lawyers have jumped into the breach.  They have just won a large class-action settlement – $35 million – against Dannon for claiming that Activia yogurt promotes immunity.   According to one news account, Dannon spent $100 million marketing the immunity-promoting effects of Activia ignoring the results of its own company-sponsored research which inconveniently showed few benefits.  (Did they not pay enough for the research?).

Dannon is working hard to get an approved health claim from the European Standards Agency which annoyingly wants to see some science behind health claims before approving them.  Dannon has now added a tomato extract to its yogurts with the idea that this substance, which appears to help deal with diarrhea, will strengthen its bid for a health claim.

Probiotics are another reason why the FDA needs to set better standards for health claims.  If it were up to me, food packages would have no claims on them: none at all.  Foods are not drugs.

cocoa Krispies

And here’s another reason why:

Will Cocoa Krispies  be the next target of those pesky lawyers?

FDA: get to work!

  • I take umbrage at the fact that the “expert” panel at Yale included members with corporate ties. That doesn’t seem very neutral to me!

  • Marc

    You mean research is mixed regarding the benefits (for most people) of adding probiotics to food, right?

    I think that there is more evidence on the benefits of friendly bacteria — fermented foods, and in some cases supplemental probiotics (pills) – for people with GI symptoms.
    I know that one case doesn’t proof anything but for me adding more bacteria to my diet has made a huge difference in my digestive health. My GI doctor recommended two weeks of antibiotics and a probiotic pill for a month (he diagnosed small intestine bacterial overgrowth because of antiacid medications after months of complaints and expensive tests coming back negative). All the symptoms disappeared. After that, I continued the probiotic pills for a couple of months but also started eating more fermented food: homemade yogurt (I let it ferment longer so it has more bacteria), kefir, cultured cheese, kombucha, sauerkraut, etc.

    But it does bother me all the claims the food industry makes about adding any type of bacteria to food high in calories with zero proof of any benefit to the general public. Just eat more fermented, unprocessed, real food!

  • Janet Camp

    This is the result of years of abuse by the supplement industry. What on earth is this “support” they are constantly referring to?

    The other day I saw a very unhealthy-looking woman loading up her cart with probiotic yogurt and some kind of fad juice; she also had pastries, chips, and other processed foods. No produce (maybe she gets that elsewhere?).

  • Margarita

    While I agree that manufactured foods should not be allowed to have health claims, I would disagree with your statement that foods are not drugs. In the whole form, many foods have medicinal and healing properties, and I am not just talking about medicinal plants.

  • I don’t eat yogurt based on claims of probiotics giving benefits. I eat yogurt because it is good and I feel it helps my digestive system too. There has been an awful lot of money spent trying to get us to believe all the hype.

  • Marion, there are days when I’d be satisfied with the claim “This product won’t kill you.”

  • asad

    then what are drugs exactly? are mushrooms food? if mushrooms can act as drugs, isn’t it possible that foods with less dramatic effects can also influence the operations of the body? i admire your work but i just don’t understand what you are talking about, you are so fixated on calories in/calories out that you treat the human body like an automobile.

  • Bobby

    As a long-term yogurt eater, I think good ole plain yogurt worked just fine. Now it’s almost imposible to find plain ordinary yogurt, although the store shelves are packed with probiotic-boosted yogurt. These health claims serve one purpose and one purpose only: to raise the price of a basic food commodity by making absurd too-good-to-be-true health claims that they use to justify jacking up the price of what is, basically, spoiled milk.

    I agree with the poster above that the dietary-supplement industry is basically a complete scam.

  • Marcia

    So what good are probiotics in yogurt if they are filling it with sugar? I see, just like some of you have commented, many people packing their carts with sugar filled yogurt thinking it is healthy because the label claims it has healthy bacteria in it!

  • I must agree with Eric B, but of course they would have to add “as far as we know” (to “this product won’t kill you”):)

  • I, like Margarita, agree that foods shouldn’t have health claims on their labels or in their advertising. (In an ideal world, food wouldn’t even NEED labels.)

    That said, what do you make of the famous Hippocratic quote “Let thy medicine be thy food, and thy food be thy medicine?” Many foods have a long history of therapeutic uses, and I’d hate to restrict the ability of the public to re-discover those uses by prohibiting people from making health claims about foods.

  • Jill Reid

    That was hilarious (“Did they not pay enough for the research?”) – I read this blog this morning and I’m still chuckling about it tonight. I had to quit eating flavored yogurt about a year ago because the “natural flavors” caused MSG-like symptoms. I eat whole food, especially fruits and veggies – so I don’t have GI tract problems (like I used to when I was eating mostly processed foods with health claim labels…)

  • Michelle

    @Janet Camp

    I really would hate to hear what other shoppers are thinking about my cart when I go to the grocery store. Especially this time of year, I do get most of my fruits, veggies and (pastured) meat from my own garden and local farmers, and only pick up the stuff I can’t grow from the grocery store – flour, sugar, and yes, the sugary yogurt and other treats that my kids enjoy as occassional treats. I know they aren’t healthy, and they don’t make up the bulk of our diet, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at my cart!

  • Pingback: Hotlinks — Semi-Sweet()

  • Pingback: Greenpoint-Williamsburg CSA » MARION NESTLE: “FOODS ARE NOT DRUGS”()