Probiotic supplement labels lacking, researchers find

Many probiotic product labels do not give consumers enough information to make an informed decision, according to new research by Georgetown University Medical Center and published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Investigators found that of 93 different bottles of probiotics purchased from four large national probiotic retailers in the Washington, DC area, only 33 products, or 35 percent, could be linked to medical efficacy as supported by clinical evidence. The researchers point out that the other 65 percent of products might be supported by clinical studies, but they were not able track down the evidence given insufficient labeling.

The researchers considered a product supported by evidence if the product label disclosed the strain of bacteria or yeast designation(s), the strain was said to be present at a beneficial dose, and at least one controlled human study supported use of the probiotic was listed on PubMed, a web-based search engine for biomedicine and health studies.

The higher number of strains, higher dose, or greater cost were not associated with evidence, according to Dan Merenstein, MD, professor of family medicine and director of research programs for the Department of Family Medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and senior investigator of the study.

"It may be counterintuitive to consumers, but we found that products with fewer strains and lower cost were more likely to be supported by evidence we could trace," he says.

The caveat is that consumers will have to do legwork themselves to figure out the best product to buy, Merenstein said. None of the 33 bottles linked to evidence that the probiotics inside were clinically beneficial had any mention of those studies on the label.

In 2014, a group of experts, two of which are authors on this paper, affirmed the definition of probiotics to be, "live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host."

The robust use of probiotics has led to a number of studies that have found several strains work as intended, but additional studies have shown other strains don't work better than a placebo. Manufacturers are required to demonstrate that commercial probiotics are safe for the intended consumer and are labeled in a truthful and not misleading fashion, researchers said.

Of the 93 products examined, 67 were judged to be "unique" based on distinct strain composition. Further, any products that did not disclose strains on labels were considered unique since the precise composition could not be determined. But evidence could not be traced to many of the high-dose, multiple-species, and more expensive products, Merenstein said. Some such products listed strains that are known to be beneficial, but since the dose of the strain was not disclosed, researchers could not determine if such strains were present at an efficacious dose.

"I think it's a lot to expect consumers to check the evidence, but trustworthy guides can help them find products backed by evidence," Merenstein said. "Companies could greatly help this process by labeling products with strain designations, dose at expiration, and with proper indication of usage."