Health experts call for new controls on marketing of probiotic products. By Severin Carrell

They are the health drinks being bought by millions of Britons -- fruit and yoghurt drinks that boast about boosting your "natural defences" and "balancing" your body.

They are the health drinks being bought by millions of Britons -- fruit and yoghurt drinks that boast about boosting your "natural defences" and "balancing" your body.

Containing large doses of so-called "friendly bacteria", the drinks are being marketed as the latest way to beat the stress and pace of modern life. But now health experts and consumer bodies are becoming increasingly critical about the claims they make.

Some drinks, and many "live" yoghurts which use the same bacteria, gently hint that they are cure-alls.

And last week - to the alarm of autism campaigners - one new fruit drink linked itself to unproven claims that "good bacteria" could help treat autism in children.

Now the Consumers' Association and health experts are calling for much stricter controls over the sale of these products - known as "probiotics" - amid growing concern that many lack evidence to back up their claims.

Stuart Notholt, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, said he was "very uneasy" about last week's marketing for the new drink, Shot!, made by the Swedish firm ProViva.

The drink's launch was directly linked to new research into suggestions that child autism could be alleviated by probiotic bacteria.

However, that research has not yet begun. Mr Notholt said ProViva should have waited until there was proof of a link, particularly since this theory was highly controversial. "My fear would be that this will give people an awful lot of hopes," he said.

Confronted by the criticisms, ProViva's head of information in Sweden, Lotta Torner, apologised. She admitted the only health claims made for Shot! were that it treated flatulence and bowel upsets. "It makes me upset," she said. "This is a good product for stomach health, not a kind of miracle cure for autism."

After its investigation into the trade, Health Which? magazine is now calling for tighter and more accurate labelling, as well as better research into health benefits.

It found that most probiotic drinks - including Yakult and Danone Actimel - had ignored recommendations by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Health Organisation to print the number of live bacteria each bottle contains.

Professor Ian Rowland, a leading expert on probiotics at the University of Ulster, said this was a crucial issue. A large number of bacteria in probiotic drinks are killed off as they pass through the digestive system, leaving only a small proportion to work in the intestines.

The Food Standards Agency, the Government's food-quality watchdog, is also investigating the issue. It has commissioned the University of Reading to test whether these drinks and yoghurts actually work.

However, Professor Rowland stressed there was a wealth of evidence that probiotic bacteria do have an effect on health. Some strains of bacteria treat diarrhoea, while others can help counter the bad effects of antibiotics.

Several manufacturers insisted that clinical trials had proved their drinks worked. Danone said it had 10 years of trials behind Actimel, and Shot! has Swedish licences to make its health claims.

FRIEND OR FOE? THE FACTS ABOUT YOGHURT DRINKS

Product: Yeo Valley Organic Strawberry Biolive Yogurt

Size: 450g

Cost: £1.25

Claims: "The friendliest bacteria ... helping to keep your body in balance"

Number of bacteria: Not stated

Proof: None. Bacteria have been tested, not the yoghurt

Product: Muller Vitality Probiotic Low-Fat Yoghurt Drink

Size: 100g

Cost: 21p

Claims: "Can help keep your digestive system in balance"

Number of bacteria: Not stated

Proof: None provided for the drink, only for the bacteria

Product: ProViva Shot!

Size: 80ml

Cost: 21p a pot

Claims: "Bacteria to balance your body"

Number of bacteria: 20 billion per 80ml

Proof: Clinical trials have reportedly shown that the drink helps to ease flatulence and bowel upsets

Product: Ocean Spray Plus Probiotic Yogurt Drink

Size: 110g

Cost: 31p

Claims: "For a positive balance of friendly bacteria"

Number of bacteria: Not stated

Proof: No tests conducted on the drink's health claims, just the bacteria

Product: Yakult

Size: 65ml

Cost: 35p a pot

Claims: "Can benefit overall well-being"

Number of bacteria: Not stated; original "count" taken off label because it "confused" consumers

Proof: 70 years of clinical trials on gut and bowel health

Comments