Probiotics are riding such a wave of popularity it is even possible to get face creams, masks and serums that include these “good” bacteria. They can be massaged onto the skin to help fight against an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria. Mostly though, we think of probiotics as being found in fermented foods, drinks or capsules and intended for the gut.
Having a diverse range of microbes in the gut is considered healthy and it is possible to buy drinks that are believed to promise to help with that. Or at least they used to do so.
One of the first commercial brands on the market was Yakult, which was developed in Japan in the 1930s. It is still a market leader, along with Danone's Actimel.
Yakult, which means yoghurt in Esperanto, is a fermented skimmed milk drink as can be seen from the label. It is made up of: water, reconstituted skimmed milk, glucose-fructose syrup, sugar, maltodextrin, flavourings and Lactobacillus casei Shirota. So sugar appears three times and each little plastic bottle has more than two teaspoons. These little containers are not big enough to satisfy as a drink and yet are sugary enough to encourage a craving for more sweetness.
Lactobacillus casei Shirota is named thus as it was developed by Japanese microbiologist Dr Minoru Shirotu, whose research "selected and cultivated a unique strain of lactic acid bacteria that was robust enough to reach the gut alive", as mentioned on the label, which also mentions the drink has billions of bacteria. What's intriguing is that there are no other health claims made on the European labelling, though in some countries, such as India, the labels say Yakult helps "to improve digestion and build immunity".
In 2010, the European Food Safety Authority reviewed claims that probiotics could help the immune system and boost digestive health. It was not impressed enough with the research to allow such claims to be made on packaging here.
The drinks are not even identified as “probiotic” either, as that is considered a health claim.
The main competitor in this area is Actimel, which is made by French food giant Danone. Even the plain Actimel tastes sugary, and the nutrition label indicates there is about two and half teaspoons of sugar in each one of those tiny plastic bottles too.
So what is Actimel? Well, according to the packaging, it is a yoghurt drink “with vitamin B6 and D to support normal function of immune system. Also contains L. casei cultures”.
Reading that, you could be forgiven not realising that the vitamins have been added as part of the ingredients, rather than being a natural part of the product. You might also be inclined to think that the L casei cultures were involved in boosting immunity. But that’s not what it really says. It says the boost comes from the added vitamins. There are no claims made for the L casei cultures.
Actimel contains Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophiles, which are standard yogurt cultures found in plenty of products such as Glenisk natural yoghurt. These are not listed on the ingredients as they are part of the process of making yoghurt. Actimel also has a specific strain called Lactobacillus paracasei ssp. paracasei CNCM I-1518, which is described on ingredients listing as "L. casei Danone". There is also a trademark symbol of an "R" inside a circle next the word Danone. Native microbes, such as bacteria, cannot be patented unless they have been modified genetically. However, the process and the product obtained can be patented.
The ingredients also include milk mineral concentrate, which is high in calcium, helping to explain why the product lists calcium in the nutrition panel: it has been added into the mix.
Danone is keen to cash in on the trend for probiotics and any innovation there. It has applied for a patent for one that may help to encourage the bacteria that helps to keep our weight normal.
Similar products from Aldi and Lidl have similar L casei cultures and added vitamins. They use sweeteners which means there is less sugar and fewer calories. The jury is out on the value of sweeteners over sugar, however, so plenty prefer to avoid them.
As our understanding of the microbiome develops scientists are hopeful of finding out more about how probiotics might be used. We are only now beginning to understand what they do and how they can perhaps help us with controlling our weight, boosting our immune systems and influencing our mood.
The value of sugary commercial products with that process is not entirely clear however.