Though the category has thus far proven invulnerable to skepticism, two trade groups have joined forces to establish ground rules on how probiotics are presented to consumers. But it’s not clear that consumers will understand, or even notice, the new guidelines.
The path to transparency should obviously be paved in such good intentions. The question becomes whether that that path needs more brightly lit road signs.
The "scientifically based voluntary guidelines" developed by the Council for Responsible Nutrition in partnership with the International Probiotics Association focus on how finished product makers present the number of probiotic organisms viable in the product. The guidelines hold that such numbers should be expressed in terms of colony forming units, and that the stated number must reflect how many of the CFUs are still viable at the end of the claimed shelf life. The practice is already common across the market, but the guidelines provide further details on claims for strains and blends: For blends, each strain should be listed in descending order by the number of CFUs in the product.
The guidelines also detail how the shelf life is to be determined, directing companies to standards created by the United States Pharmacopoeia and other organizations. Additionally, the testing should be based on "all of the environments in which the product will be reasonably expected to be held throughout its lifecycle (e.g., warehouse, shipping, retail and consumer shelves)." According to the guidelines, stability testing must also be performed with products in the final packaging presented to consumers. That packaging should also include directions to the consumer on how the product should be stored.
The guidelines provide a much-needed benchmark for the industry, but for the consumers it’s unclear how much such technicalities will be known or understood. Consumers have largely accepted that “good bacteria” carries benefits, but the mechanism and benefit is rarely well explained. Instead, we see an unsettling "more is better" arms race in CFUs. Clearly, the industry might do a better job of providing education and sharing science specific to their product.
That’s where the path of good intentions needs better signage. Without that, the race to put more billions of CFUs in the product and on the label (we saw a trillion claim at Natural Products Expo East) starts to look ridiculous, or at least confusing--something that could raise doubts for consumers.
It’s not terribly hard to envision a set of guidelines what would include suggestions on what science should be shared by manufacturers and how it should be shared. The guidelines already state, "The manufacturer should maintain evidence that the amount(s) provided in the product is consistent with the scientific evidence in support of the claim." It wouldn’t be too difficult to add "and provide consumers access to that evidence."
That’s the next step, a step that the smart companies should already be taking, but it’s also a place where a joint effort like the CRN/IPA coordination could help protect both consumers and the industry.