Danone looks to bust microbiome myths

By Jim Cornall

- Last updated on GMT

A new survey shows some probiotics myth-busting is necessary. Pic: Getty Images/tupungato
A new survey shows some probiotics myth-busting is necessary. Pic: Getty Images/tupungato

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Products claiming to improve gut health are flying off shelves, yet many fail to live up to their claims and consumers are confused on how to evaluate what they see on the label, suggests a new national survey from Danone North America.

KRC Research conducted an online survey of 1,004 general population adults (ages 18+) across the US in August, 2021, which showed consumers are increasingly interested in foods and beverages that support gut health (71%), yet they’re not entirely familiar with the “gut microbiome” – or the trillions of microbes and their byproducts in our digestive tract.

Only about half (49%) understood the link between the microbiome and digestive health.  Even fewer recognized the impact of the microbiome on overall health, including our immune system (43%), weight management (43%) and mental wellbeing (33%).

“Research on the gut microbiome is rapidly advancing and we are just beginning to recognize the full extent of the role that gut microbes play in health and disease,”​ said Miguel Freitas, PhD, vice president of scientific affairs at Danone North America.

“With greater knowledge of the gut microbiome’s health significance, we are focused on how the gut microbiome can be influenced, including the use of biotics – such as probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics.”

While the scientific evidence and consumer interest on gut health is growing, there’s a surprising amount of confusion on the subject, the company said.  The new consumer survey revealed five major myths on the microbiome and probiotics. 

MYTH: All fermented foods and beverages contain probiotics

More than half (52%) believe they’re getting probiotic benefits when consuming fermented foods and beverages, which include kombucha, vinegar, sauerkraut, pickles and sourdough bread. 

Kristie Leigh, a registered dietitian nutritionist and senior manager of scientific affairs at Danone North America, said, “Yes, these products contain bacteria as part of the fermentation process, but not all live microbes are necessarily probiotics. Probiotics are live strain specific microorganisms that have been studied and shown to provide a health benefit.  Additionally, many of these fermented products go through further processing, such as pasteurization and baking, that will kill the live microbes.”

MYTH: All live and active cultures are probiotics

It’s frequently assumed “live and active cultures” on a label means a probiotic product, a belief held by 47% of consumers.

“Live and active cultures are microbes, but they’re not all created equal,”​ Leigh said.

“While all yogurts have live and active cultures, not all yogurts contain probiotic strains that provide specific health benefits, such as supporting gut health or supporting the immune system.  Many of these cultures are used for fermentation but have not been directly tested for health benefits. Only live microbes that have been shown to have a health effect can be technically called a probiotic.”

MYTH: Products boasting a higher number of colony-forming units (CFUs) on the label are more effective as a probiotic

“Don’t count on it,”​ said Freitas, who has led multiple studies at Danone documenting the probiotic benefits of Activia and DanActive.   More isn’t necessarily better, although 59% believed a higher CFU count equaled a superior effect. It’s about the specific strain at the right amount that really matters. 

MYTH: You should not take probiotics while using antibiotics

More than half (52%) thought taking antibiotics meant you needed to avoid probiotics.  Freitas said there is no reason to avoid probiotics if you’re prescribed antibiotics. Consuming probiotics regularly adds good bacteria to the gut, especially if it was negatively affected by antibiotic use.

MYTH: Probiotic supplements are equivalent to probiotics in food

Probiotics supplements are widely promoted, and 47% of consumers believe they’re just as good as probiotics in food.  Yet Leigh said these probiotic pills can vary significantly in quality, including the strains and concentration of microbes.

“It’s not always easy to know what you’re buying.  Consuming probiotics in a food, such as a probiotic yogurt like Activia, is a better approach because you’re getting other valuable nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D.  Additionally, products like Activia and DanActive, the probiotic pioneers, have close to 50 clinical studies, going back more than 20 years.”

While there’s a greater awareness of probiotics, fewer Americans understand the larger biotics family, which includes prebiotics (dietary fibers that nourish the good bacteria in our gut) and postbiotics (inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that provide a health benefit). 

More than two-thirds of US adults (67%) recognize probiotics have a positive impact on our overall health, yet the awareness of the benefits of prebiotics (34%) and postbiotics (14%) is lower.  More than three-quarters of adults (76%) admit they are unfamiliar with or unsure of the impact of postbiotics – which is quickly emerging as a trending functional ingredient.

“It is clear that there is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding when it comes to topics related to gut health and biotics,”​ Freitas said. 

“Danone North America has a long legacy of supporting education around the gut microbiome, and we are committed to making the information digestible and accessible to all.” 

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