Consumers commonly confused by probiotics, survey finds

By Danielle Masterson

- Last updated on GMT

Getty Images /  zoranm
Getty Images / zoranm

Related tags Probiotic Gut microbiome

Now that fall has officially arrived, immune health is front and center, with 75% of consumers saying they’re relying on some type of supplement. So where do probiotics stand? Danone conducted a survey recently to find out.

The survey included just over 1,000 adults in the US and it found that most Americans are looking to add vitamin C (59%), vitamin D (49%) and B vitamins (49%), while just 25% recognize the value of probiotics to support the immune system.

Despite the gut being home to at least 70% of the immune system, less than half of the respondents said they understood the link between the microbiome and digestive health. Even fewer recognized the impact of the microbiome on overall health, including the 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 there’s a greater awareness of probiotics, fewer Americans understand the lesser known biotics – prebiotics and postbiotics.

More than two-thirds (67%) of survey respondents said they recognize that probiotics have a positive impact on our overall health, yet the awareness of the benefits of prebiotics (34%) and postbiotics (14%) is much lower. In fact, over 75% admit they are unfamiliar with or unsure of the impact of postbiotics – which is quickly emerging as a trending functional ingredient.

The ‘live and active cultures’ confusion

The survey highlighted the misconception that “live and active cultures” on a label automatically means it’s a probiotic product – a belief held by 47% of respondents.

“Live and active cultures are microbes, but they’re not all created equal,” ​explained Kristie Leigh, RD, senior manager of Scientific Affairs at Danone North America. “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.”

More than half indicated they believe they’re getting probiotic benefits when consuming fermented foods and beverages like kombucha, vinegar, sauerkraut, pickles and sour dough bread.

“Yes, these products contain bacteria as part of the fermentation process, but not all live microbes are necessarily probiotics,” ​Leigh said. “ Additionally, many of these fermented products go through further processing, such as pasteurization and baking, that will kill the live microbes.”

“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.”

Who is responsible for educating consumers?

With so many strains and options out on the shelves, consumers can be overwhelmed. A common challenge for many brands is reaching consumers with information that they can easily digest.

However, the Council for Responsible Nutrition wants retailers to take the lead on consumer education.

CRN introduced a retailer education campaign, “Probiotics: What’s Inside is Alive.”​ The initiative, which launched in April, works to educate retail buyers and customers about the intricacies of these living organisms, assist retail buyers with curating their offerings, and inform customers about the benefits of probiotics.

CRN developed the campaign in collaboration with its Probiotics Working Group to help retail buyers understand the differences between probiotic products and know how to purchase high-quality probiotics from responsible manufacturers to ultimately provide the best options and information for consumers.

“Given the popularity of these products, the expanding product innovation, and the growing body of scientific research showing the benefits of this category, CRN recognizes that it’s more important than ever for retailers to be better informed about probiotics. In particular, it’s essential that retail buyers understand the particularities of probiotics because they serve as the gatekeepers for what ends up on the shelf, and for disseminating critical information to safeguard the reputation of their stores and benefit the health of their customers,”​ said Andrea Wong, PhD, senior vice president, scientific & regulatory affairs, CRN.

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