“Probiotic supplements may do the opposite of boosting your gut health” according to an article in The Washington Post. The article advises readers to "beware of the hype" and cautions: "Taking gummies, powders and capsules of live microorganisms can disrupt the balance of bacteria in the intestinal tract of healthy people and lead to less microbial diversity." Going beyond that, the article contends that studies show that taking probiotic supplements can reduce the levels of microbial diversity in your gut, "which is linked to a number of health problems.” 

IPA sets the record straight on probiotics

The International Probiotics Association (IPA) critical response team issued a response to the article, noting that the "hype" surrounding probiotics is actually backed by research. "Underpinning this multibillion-dollar industry are over 1,600 registered probiotic clinical studies, over 700 indications for probiotic supplements, and millions of probiotic doses taken daily around the world by a variety of individuals, with no reported deaths in healthy people due to probiotic supplementation to date. Probiotic foods and dietary supplements are regulated around the world with a variety of safe lists, and a number of quality and manufacturing procedures. This is not hype, this is a science-backed, established industry."

Regarding the idea that probiotics damage the microbiome, IPA said scientific evidence does not support that assertion. "Microbiome profiling is often performed in probiotic studies, but is not a clinically accepted biomarker, and varies greatly in how it is performed, analyzed, and interpreted," IPA explained. The association also pointed to a recent scientific review paper on safety of probiotics that discourages relying on microbiome profiling as a safety assessment. "Thus, while lower diversity in the gut microbiota is generally linked to several health problems, no evidence has been provided by the author to demonstrate that probiotics can lower the diversity and thus cause health problems."

Dissecting the Washington Post article, IPA raised several concerns, and made counter arguements, including:

  • The Washington Post article points to a2018 paper  as support, but IPA said this paper has  been "dismantled" by scientific experts. In addition, IPA said, the paper "is misquoted and the data has unfortunately been taken out of context yet again."
  • The article suggests consuming fermented foods instead of taking probiotics. IPA said the Washington Post "falls prey to the misconception that fermented foods contain probiotics." Clarifying the matter, IPA explained that unless the microbial components in fermented foods have demonstrated a health benefit in a good quality clinical trial at the strain level, they should be considered beneficial dietary microbes, and not probiotics. What's more, IPA added, "Fermented foods by default also do not necessarily contain prebiotics or postbiotics, as they do not typically list specific microbial components, nor their live microbial content through to end of shelf life. It is also noteworthy that not all fermented foods contain live microbes if they have been heat treated or pasteurized. Furthermore, fermented foods may contain an uncharacterized synbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, so inconsistencies may occur between batches depending on the manufacturing process."
  • IPA stressed that there is not one best diet or food, nor is there one best product or ingredient for supporting gut health. "As we move to personalization and personalized health, all biotics need to be considered for their specific and unique benefits. It is irresponsible for a public media outlet to make such bold inaccurate contrasts without doing appropriate scientific due diligence to back up their statements."
  • For more of IPA's analysis and correction of the article, read the full statement on IPA's website.

The benefits of probiotics, fermented foods, & other biotics

IPA concludes by noting that probiotics have documented health benefits for healthy individuals. "Within the probiotic industry, there is generally a lack of longitudinal studies on safety, efficacy, and ‘nutri-vigilance’, and this is typically due to the high cost and low return on investment for low margin products in the food and dietary supplement categories. That being said, the probiotic industry is moving towards interconnected standards and best practice guidelines not only for manufacturing and production, but also for scientific and technical aspects. As health issues worsen within the U.S. and globally, the negative focus on 'beneficial biotic' ingredients should instead give rise to the benefits of probiotics, fermented foods, and all other biotics. The Washington Post should focus their efforts to highlight positive research regarding immunity, gastrointestinal, and overall health instead of relying on social media evidence to fear monger amongst consumers who seek to derive benefit for their gut and overall health."