Health claims for probiotics unproven, expert tells Ballymaloe festival

Probiotic microbes may be hot property in food, but most health claims surrounding them remain unproven, Ballymaloe Litfest has heard.

UCC professor of psychiatry Ted Dinan was in a line-up of national and international experts who talked about the politics, science and history of food at the annual festival in Ballymaloe, Co Cork.

He questioned the health claims around foods with added probiotics. “Most [probiotics] don’t make it through the acid in the stomach,” he said, adding that one bug he worked with in the UCC lab was killed by the mild acidity in the tap water.

Prof Dinan said new research had found a link between our gut bacteria and how well we remember things.


“If bugs in the gut are exposed to antibiotics you get less conversion of stem cells into neurons in the brain,” he said.

“Fifteen years ago microbes in the gut were regarded as irrelevant to our health. Now they’re one of the hottest areas of medicine. Because we know now that the microbes have a profound impact on our health throughout our lives.”

Global food chain

Danielle Nierenberg

, founder of the policy institute Food Tank, said it was important to invest in the 500 million “small family farms across the globe who produce 90 per cent of the food we and they eat”.

There was no silver bullet for sustainable food production but three critical steps would be to cultivate indigenous crops, prevent food waste and improve gender equality by giving women farmers access to funding, education and support.

The world can produce enough food to feed 10 billion people, Stanford agricultural economist William Burke told the final discussion session. "A lot of people have been asking me that question this weekend and I say unequivocally yes . . . we produce that much food now." The problem was with food distribution, he said.

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests