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Feature

Quick Look: Probiotics

Posted on: 27 Oct 10

Summary

Now more than ever, alternative science and holistic remedies are playing a role in our lifestyles. But is that right? Over the past year, we've reported on everything from homeopathy to hypnotherapy. Importantly, we've differentiated between those approaches with at least a modicum of evidence to support them, and those without almost any at all. Yet in contrast to homeopathy, perhaps it can be said that our next target has at least a little science to support it.


Now more than ever, alternative science and holistic remedies are playing a role in our lifestyles. But is that right? Over the past year, we've reported on everything from homeopathy to hypnotherapy. Importantly, we've differentiated between those approaches with at least a modicum of evidence to support them, and those without almost any at all. Yet in contrast to homeopathy, perhaps it can be said that our next target has at least a little science to support it.

Sixty. That's the percentage of British households that frequently buy probiotic 'health drinks' on a regular basis. And yet, for all the millions of such products sold to consumers, and for the over £200m in revenues that are brought in each year, there is still very little evidence to support the claims of their manufacturers. Or at least most of them. Broadly speaking, the general public trusts regulators to get it right. Hence if products in the marketplace are supplemented by claims of glowing health benefits, such claims are usually seen as legitimate. Yet clearly, this is not always the case. More importantly, before 2007 and the introduction of regulation by the European Union, there had been no monitoring of claims made by manufacturers of said products whatsoever. But, what exactly are probiotics anyway?

Akin to many of the beneficial bacteria naturally occurring in the human gut, probiotics — as they were termed by German scientist Werner Kollath in 1953 — are live micro bacteria commonly presumed to have health benefits. Lactobacillus acidophilus, one such type of bacteria, is commonly used in the treatment of diarrhoea - particularly in young children. To use a more concise definition, the World Health Organisation defines probiotics as: "Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host". The real question remains, quite how much of a benefit do they deliver?

The most recent findings of The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) represents their sixth published judgement on the potential health benefits of so-called probiotics. I specify 'so called' for the very simple reason that, according the EFSA themselves, their scientists "avoid using the term probiotics" due to its lack of real scientific meaning. Nevertheless, in its most recent judgment - as well as in its previous five rulings - the EFSA states unequivocally that most of the alleged health benefits of products containing probiotics — such as drinks and yogurts — are unsupported by the science. Specifically, the claim that probiotics 'improve the immune system' was rejected outright. Indeed many of the claims submitted to the panel by the industry were said to be either too general to be seriously considered or simply unsubstantiated in terms of demonstrable benefits.

Conversely, while more in-depth studies are required, there is some external evidence to suggest that probiotics can be beneficial in the treatment of gut disorders and diarrhoea. as well as in reducing the risk of infection during a course of antibiotics. Ultimately, whether or not these products are beneficial is also determined by the particular strain of bacteria used. And with so many products now on the market, the EFSA has an important role in protecting consumers.

According to a report from the Guardian Newspaper, 'The industry has complained that the EFSA is applying excessively rigorous scientific standards when assessing the new claims'. This is nonsense. Either a product does provide a tangible health benefit that stands up to the science, or it doesn't. To ask a regulator specifically designed to assess scientific claims not to apply scientific standards seems ludicrous. Moreover, isn't it the task of any regulator to pass its judgments down to the very letter of the law? With such potentially dubious claims in the marketplace, consumers are relying on just that. So far, the EFSA has not let them down.

Max Golby

Last updated on: 27/10/2010 11:32:26

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