Don't be fooled by yogurt claims, only ‘clinically documented’ probiotics can offer health benefits, says scientist

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

Yogurt must contain a specific concentration of certain clinically documented or well-researched probiotic strains in order for consumers to experience health benefits. (Photo: iStock)
Yogurt must contain a specific concentration of certain clinically documented or well-researched probiotic strains in order for consumers to experience health benefits. (Photo: iStock)

Related tags Probiotic Lactobacillus

Consumers are being led to believe that many yogurts contain probiotic strains beneficial to their health, but that is not always the case, according to CHR Hansen principal scientist, Mirjana Curic-Bawden, Ph.D.

“Yogurt and other fermented dairy products carry the healthy halo of dairy as they contain live and active lactic acid bacteria,”​ Curic-Bawden told DairyReporter.

Curic-Bawden points out consumers must pay attention to the particular probiotic strain that is labeled and be aware that only well-researched probiotics can provide the health benefits consumers expect.

By the standard food definition, yogurt must contain two species of lactic acid bacteria: Streptococcus thermophilus​ and Lactobacillus bulgaricus​, according to Curic-Bawden. In order for a yogurt to be labeled as probiotic, it must contain a clinically-documented probiotic strain.

“It should be emphasized that while all probiotics are live cultures, not all live cultures are probiotics,”​ Curic-Bawden said.

“This is the main source of confusion among some yogurt producers and among consumers.”

In the US, “probiotics”​ is an unregulated term, meaning there is not a specific guideline in place for the labeling of probiotic benefits besides the general FDA guidelines on structure functional claim.

“In our opinion, it is not hard to use a probiotic strain at a documented level in this instance to make probiotic yogurt,” ​Curic-Bawden said.

There are many probiotic strain suppliers out there who can educate, assist, and work with the customers who are developing probiotic yogurt, she added.

Identifying ‘true probiotics’

True probiotic strains can be identified by their scientific strain name followed by an alpha numeric designation, for example Bifidobacterium BB-12, L. rhamnosus LGG, or L. casei 431; and they require clinical documentation to claim a health benefit such as gastrointestinal health or immunity.

Curic-Bawden says that over the past 15 to 20 years many yogurt brands have used generic probiotics as a content claim simply because it is listed in the ingredient deck of the yogurt.

“Some yogurt makers add generic probiotics species such as L. acidophilus, Bifidobacterium, and L. casei in yogurt, but the presence of these species does not necessarily make it a product that confers a health benefit,”​ Curic-Bawden said.

Even if a documented strain is used at a suboptimal level (less than the clinically documented level), the product will not have the benefit beyond just the benefits of consuming yogurt itself, she added. 

Furthermore, the probiotic must prove a high survival rate in yogurt over 50 to 60 days without affecting taste, flavor, and texture.

Growing clean label transparency

There are some products that do deliver the types of probiotic strains that deliver health benefits, however.

According to Curic-Bawden, some of the products on the US market that contain documented probiotics are: Dannon Activia, Dannon DanActive, Yakult, and Nancy’s yogurt and kefir, in addition to a growing number of small start-ups.

CHR Hansen is seeing a growing trend of naturally functional, clean label dairy products with millennials leading to movement towards greater label transparency, especially in yogurt and dairy products.  

“Yogurt makers have an opportunity to differentiate their products by labelling strain identity by the scientific name and the level of the strain (e.g. minimum 1bn CFU at time of consumption),”​ Curic-Bawden said. 

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