Health claim of probiotics not accepted

£220m-a-year 'dairy shots' industry in disarray following EU scientists' ruling

Drink this yogurt for a healthier stomach. Thirty million shoppers have swallowed the claims for probiotics as enthusiastically as the sweet fermented milk in the belief that "good bacteria" will defeat "bad bacteria" in epic microscopic battles inside our bodies.

But claims that probiotic ingredients improve health can not be supported, according to an extensive review of scientific research by a team of experts from the European Union.

Of 180 claims for probiotic ingredients, the EU's food agency the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) threw out every one. Ten were rejected outright and a 21-member expert panel could not assess the remaining 170 because the ingredients for which the claims were made could not be identified.

The findings on ingredients such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium are an embarrassment to the UK's £220m-a-year "dairy shots" industry, which has relied on heavy advertising to persuade shoppers of its products.

However Britain's best-selling yogurt drinks, Actimel and Yakult, were excluded from Efsa's findings yesterday because Danone, Actimel's maker, and Yakult, the Japanese firm which introduced probiotic drinks to the UK in 1996, withdrew their claims before they could be scrutinised.

They have since re-submitted them, but the results will not be available until next year.

Efsa is reviewing all health claims made for food products following the introduction of a new EU law, the 2006 Regulation on Health and Nutrition Claims, which stipulated for the first time that all medical-sounding marketing boasts must be verified. Brands whose claims are not approved will have to stop making the claims.

Efsa has been studying 2,000 applications submitted by member states on behalf of companies. Releasing results on "general health claims" yesterday, Efsa's 21-member expert panel rejected two-thirds of the 523 applications for 200 vitamins, minerals, fibre, fats, carbohydrates, and "probiotic" bacteria.

On probiotics, an Efsa spokeswoman said: "They have been assessed but the outcome was negative or our scientists said they didn't have sufficient evidence to evaluate them."

Yesterday, Danone, the French dairy giant which is thought to have withdrawn three claims for Actimel and Activia from Efsa in April, made no comment.

Yakult, which introduced probiotic drinks to the UK in 1996, said the results did "not relate to Yakult."

Yakult, which markets its best-selling yogurt as "self-defence for your gut", said an application for its principal ingredient, Lactobacillus casei Shirota, had duplicated other claims with Efsa. The Japanese firm said: "Evidence for its health benefit is based on over 70 human studies and over 70 years of research."

Sue Davies, chief policy officer at Which? said the rulings showed that eventually shoppers would be made aware of what did, and did not, work.

"For too long the fact that people are getting more interested in health has been seen as a marketing opportunity, and companies have been putting claims on their products. And now that we are getting systematic research we have been able to say some of these claims cannot be supported."

180

Number of claims for probiotic ingredients rejected by EU.

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