I have become so accustomed to seeing negative headlines about dietary supplements that they barely jump off the page at me anymore. But recently, I saw a story with such a brazenly false headline on a news/opinion Web site that I couldn’t help but click through: “Your Probiotic Is Probably B.S.”

Just great, I thought, as the page loaded. How could you go after one of the most research-backed supplements for digestive health? Easy, it turned out, if you don’t have a penchant for fact checking or research.

What’s Bugging Me
The author—in a somewhat irritated, put-out tone—raised several supposed problems with probiotics in her long condemnation of the category. Her main beef was that the research community has put out more than 1,200 articles on probiotics, and different bacterial strains have been found to do different things. Therefore, if shoppers simply buy a product that says “probiotic” on the front label, they won’t know if it’s made from the “right” bacteria to suit their specific purpose. Thus, the author quickly concludes that probiotics are a rip off, and an intentional one perpetrated by unscrupulous companies hoping to get one over on customers.

So, different probiotics do different things. Are you shocked and outraged? Have I told you something you don’t already know?

No, and that’s my point.

Your Probiotics Shoppers Are Probably Educated
My opinion of this piece is that the writer shouldn’t have a problem with probiotics at all. She should have a problem with where she’s shopping for her probiotics. She references the large amount of such supplements offered in her local mega-mart. Well, sorry, but if that’s where you’re buying your supplements, there’s an excellent chance you’re not going to understand what you’re buying, if you purchase the correct product at all.

These stores aren’t set up for personal shopper attention and education. They’re intended for high-volume traffic, and what’s traded away in the deal is individual education.

Contrast that with your store: Would a shopper in your store inadvertently walk out of your shop with a dental health probiotic hoping to support digestive health? Not likely.

You and your staff are probably very familiar with some specific probiotic strains and with the mountains of research behind them. What is lost on the writer is that there’s a difference between taking “probiotics” and taking a probiotic product that has a recognized genus, species and strain—something like LP299v; you know that and your shoppers may, too, thanks to your guidance and the research you put into your work. When the writer says that the hype of probiotics isn’t matched by the research, I wonder what her research process was like in developing such a statement.

In the end, the problem of “everyone’s an expert” truly applies. Nutrition topics and supplements are complex. It takes a whole lot more to understand a supplement category than simply reading a product’s name—or an article at the top of your newsfeed. The owners, staffs and shoppers of independent nutrition stores know this and recognize the commitment that is needed to consumer education and to offering responsible products.

If you shop in a huge discount store, you get what you pay for: lower prices, non-existent education and the risk that you don’t fully know what you’re buying. Customers that truly want to understand the link between nutrition, health and supplements are best served shopping elsewhere. WF

Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner
Editor/Associate Publisher


Published in WholeFoods Magazine, August 2014