While probiotics have rapidly grown in popularity with consumers, until now regulation of the friendly microbes in food products has not kept pace. This month, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) announced new standards for food manufacturers using probiotic food ingredients.
The "Microbial Food Cultures Including Probiotics" appendix is available for public view and comment in the Food Chemicals Codex online forum. The standards include quality testing methods for identification and enumeration (microbe count) and intended use in food, safety, regulatory status and purity. The standards also classify probiotics into two categories: technological (starter cultures) or functional (microbes with a health benefit) and require probiotics to be identified at the strain level.
"Testing for identity is difficult with probiotics, and this is a key area where public standards provided in the Food Chemicals Codex can be of significant value across the food, nutritional and consumer products industries," said Praveen Tyle, PhD, USP's chief science officer. "With more manufacturers incorporating probiotics in products beyond yogurts based on rising consumer interest, scrutiny of health claims will grow, as will global sourcing of ingredients. We believe additional measures for determining identity and overall quality will be useful in protecting consumers and manufacturers alike."
The standards come at a time when probiotics are booming. According to Nutrition Business Journal, U.S. consumer sales of probiotic supplements totaled $630 million on 19 percent growth for 2010. NBJ does not specifically track probiotic foods sales.
Strain-specific probiotics could be the future
Probiotic foods have come a long way, from hit-and-miss efficacy to identification of specific probiotic strains that have substantiated positive health effects, said Armin Salmen, vice president of research & development and quality assurance at NextFoods, makers of GoodBelly. The trend toward strain specificity is driving health claims and ingredient labels—and giving consumers confidence that their probiotic products will deliver on digestive health.
But the problem with many probiotic food products is they don't list specific strains, leaving the consumer guessing if the product is efficacious or not. The new standards from USP could create a level playing field so that, at the very least, quality across the category is maintained.
As for using a strain that's efficacious? That's still up to the food manufacturer.
"'Lactobacillus' could mean hundreds and hundreds of strains—it doesn't mean anything," said Salmen, noting that Lactobacillus plantarum on a label is "better because it lists down to the species level, but it still doesn't mean much." An even better label would be Lactobacillus plantarum299v, a strain that has scientifically been studied to improve IBS-related symptoms, and which is present in GoodBelly, he said.
Where's the finished product research?
While research has supported the benefits of specific strains, tests on finished food products that incorporate those strains aren't always available. This is what food manufacturers have to prove to consumers: that probiotics are effective when placed into the food delivery format.
"Unfortunately in foods, the die off rate of these organisms is very rapid," said Natasha Trenev, probiotics educator and president and founder of Natren, a Calif.-based probiotic supplement manufacturer. "Within a matter of a couple of weeks it's down to below what we call 'effective levels.'"
Depending on the strain, a refrigerated probiotic can stay viable for nine to 14 months, she said. "If you don't know what survives in each food, how do you know what benefit you're getting?" USP's new identity and quantity standards provide industry with a universal way to work toward answering that question.
Will USP's probiotic standards help or hinder food manufacturers? Share in the comments.