From the yoghurt drinks of the ‘90s to Unilever’s recent investment in ‘happy bacteria’ skincare, probiotics are still a hot topic – but consumer confusion is rife, discovers Kate Miller, and puzzling legislation isn’t helping
Anybody who was around in the 1990s will remember a phenomenon which came to be known as ‘the battle of the little bottles’.
The little bottles in question were probiotic-based yoghurt drinks that spent much of the decade vying for sales on supermarkets shelves. While those in the natural food world had raised a weary eyebrow at this ‘discovery’ of an area known to them for decades, it did kick-start an interest among consumers that has continued ever since.
However, with success comes scrutiny, and the decades in between have seen the European Commission ban the term probiotic, and the European Food Safety Authority reject all petitions by commercial manufacturers for health claims on probiotic products in Europe – the most recent being Heinz Nutrimune in April, first rejected in 2017.
Despite the legislative minefield, nutritionist Shona Wilkinson says interest continues to grow, particularly in the last 18 months – due partly to research pointing to uses other than just gut health. “We used to recommend them mainly for digestive issues, but since the emergence of so much research on their effect on other health conditions, their use has widened. It is now common to recommend them for issues such as skin health, mood, immunity and so on. As more research is produced, the use of probiotics will undoubtedly increase, probably with more emphasis on different strains for particular health issues.”
Joanna Dziedzic, natural therapist and retail manager at Windfall Natural in Chiswick, says it’s a major area for the store: “Probiotics is probably one of our strongest categories. We sell many different lines: BioCare, Pure Encapsulations, Garden of Life, OptiBac and many more, but BioCare definitely performs best for us. We’ve been observing a growing interest in this area and our customers frequently use them for post-antibiotic treatment, bloating and constipation.”
Dziedzic says that her customers also use them to strengthen their immunity, ease seasonal allergies and for gastrointestinal symptoms related to food intolerances such as dairy, wheat and gluten. “Parents buy it for their newborn babies, as well as school children; we help them to choose the most suitable product for their condition.”
According to Mintel, probiotics’ role in skincare through supplementation is one to watch. In the report Managing Skin Conditions, 44% of adults reported suffering from a skin condition, with 54% of women who used facial skincare products agreeing that diet could impact skin appearance, and 38% saying that stress can impact skin appearance.
In 2015, Mintel pointed to market opportunities for probiotic skincare to restore healthy skin, and since that time, probiotic skincare has risen. The analyst says that the investment of large companies into smaller brands (Unilever Ventures’ investment in Gallinée and L Catterton’s investment in Tula last year) is a sign that the area has gone from a niche trend to the mainstream, and is set to grow as consumers buy into the ‘inside out’ trend of cleaner living.
But it seems that the effect of the little bottles, and confusion resulting from legislation, is still being felt: “The public’s knowledge of probiotics still tends to be limited to the likes of Yakult,” says Wilkinson. “Some clients know about probiotics for digestive health (usually the yoghurt drinks), but their knowledge tends to stop there. They need much more guidance on the different types and what is the best one for them.
“But the legislation makes it incredibly difficult to inform people of their benefits in a legal way – instead, very creative wording has to be used! In view of the emerging research on probiotics for sport, it would be worth manufacturers obtaining an informed sports certification.
“In America, where they can use the word probiotic, this popularity is even more evident. You can get probiotic chocolate, probiotic drinks, probiotic biscuits, probiotic skincare, probiotic cleaning products – in fact, pretty much probiotic everything!” Wilkinson says that the US also has the advantage of being able to sell probiotics for different health conditions: “For example, you will see ranges with different probiotics for arthritis, digestive health, mood, eczema, etc.”
Dziedzic agrees: “Most customers have heard a lot about probiotics but often become confused and overwhelmed with the choice on the market and different messages on the Internet. Having experienced and qualified nutritionists on the shop floor, we feel very comfortable asking customers specific questions, providing the best possible tailored advice and directing them to the right product.”
Legislation isn’t the only fly in the ointment, with a spate of headlines last year questioning both the efficacy and safety of products. Research published in Cell questioned whether general probiotics, which weren’t tailored to individual use, were of any use at all, with research participants showing gut microbiome resistance to some probiotic strains they were given.
Another study questioned whether taking probiotics to counter the effects of antibiotics might actually adversely interfere with the body’s own ability to replenish its microbiome, and another linked taking probiotics with bloating and brain sluggishness.
However, Wilkinson says that her clients don’t seem to be affected by the negative publicity. “I have not had a single person worry about this. I think that there are so many damaging and contradictory stories around supplements in the press … the public has become a bit blasé and almost blind to the scaremongering!”
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