More and more food and beverages are labeling their product with -biotics – probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics — confusing consumers as to what a -biotic is and its potential health benefit.
There’s an “overuse of the term probiotic as referring to any live microbe,” says Bob Hutkins, professor of food microbiology and the University of Nebraska (and a Science Advisor on TFA’s Advisory Board). Probiotics, according to the International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), require documentation of both a health benefit and the strain.
“It’s a high bar to call something a probiotic,” he continues. “I read labels that say ‘contains probiotics’ and I’d say, the vast majority of the time, they’re incorrectly named if they’re named at all.”
Hutkins was part of a panel hosted by Food Navigator on “Feeding the Gut Microbiome: From Pre-, Pro-, and Postbiotics.” Speakers included leaders of food brands and -biotic supplement brands.
Is a Fermented Food Probiotic?
The issues surrounding probiotics and fermented foods have long been debated. TFA hosted a webinar on the topic in 2021, and it was the focus of a keynote session at TFA’s FERMENTATION 2021 conference.
Using the example of kimchi, Hutkins explains the fermented cabbage may contain live microbes that closely resemble a probiotic strain. But, according to scientific-backed definitions by ISAPP and the World Health Organization (WHO), “you can’t call that kimchi probiotic unless you isolated the strain, characterized the strain, done a clinical study and then that kimchi is going to be different from the kimchi you’ll make tomorrow. So it’s a challenge for companies that are producing fermented foods that probably have live microbes that can provide some benefits, but you can’t call them probiotics.”
Hutkins encourages fermentation producers to use the term “rich in live microbes” on their label instead. If the product does include clinically tested probiotics (like in yogurt), “I really applaud the company that puts the genus and species on their package.”
Miguel Freitas, PhD, vice president of health scientific affairs at Danone North America, says the conversation in the industry needs to change from just probiotics to strain specificity.
“There are many consumers that are just seeking the word probiotic on the packaging. And they believe that probiotics will [help] everything from immune health to gut health,” Freitas says. “This is where I believe it can start to get tricky because there are so many products out there.”
Though the science around -biotics has evolved tremendously in the past two decades, consumers are overwhelmed and confused by all the choices.For example, he points to a new clothing brand that alleges the probiotics in their clothes are activated by heat.
This is why the food and beverage industry needs to play an active role in consumer education, says Todd Beckman, president of Verb Biotics.
“They have a platform to talk about health, these specific ingredients and health benefits,” he says. “They have the megaphone to talk to consumers in a true and authentic way.”
But Beckman warns: “the brands that don’t really know what they’re doing or don’t stand for anything or don’t stand for science, they’re not going to be there tomorrow.” Consumers will abandon brands with unsubstantiated health claims.
“If all of a sudden consumers aren’t believing in probiotics or what they can do, then it’s quite damaging,” he says.
Tom First, founder and CEO of Culture Pop probiotic soda, says that, though their brand has the clinical benefits of a verified and shelf-stable probiotic strain, they don’t lead with this complicated information in their marketing. Instead, they focus on flavor and it “being a fun drink,” figuring consumers can look to the Culture Pop website if they want to dive deeper.
Adding to consumer confusion: products on grocery shelves may now contain one of three -biotics – probiotics, prebiotics or postbiotics. Justin Green, PhD, director of scientific affairs at Cargill Health Technologies, says many think of -biotics as a daily supplement with a simple health benefit, like vitamin C.
“We really have to drive home there’s going to be different [-biotics] from different organisms, different fermentation techniques and most importantly different health benefits,” he says.
Probiotics are live bacteria; prebiotics are food for the bacteria; and postbiotics are metabolites produced by the probiotics.