Quality Control Needed in Probiotic Supplements

June 14, 2016  |  By Cory Grand, PhD, PMP

Recently, the following paper: Assessment of the Microbiological Status of Probiotic Products. Pol J Microbiol. 65(1):97-104 was published in the Polish Journal of Microbiology (a lower-profile journal that might have gone under the radar, but sound research nevertheless), evaluating the quality and claims of a number of probiotic supplements. The overall conclusion: What it says on the label may not necessarily indicate what’s in the bottle.

I should apologize; that sounded a lot like fear-mongering. More accurately: Despite the best efforts of the industry, there may be a need for better quality control in probiotic supplements. For manufacturers, this means more robust and more frequent QC procedures during production and packaging. For consumers, this means choosing probiotics from companies who perform proper QC and make these data available to their customers.

Does your probiotic really have the potency (CFUs) listed on the label?

In the publication, the authors point to two shortcomings in the supplements they studied: First, the “CFU” listed on the label. This value, referring to the number of “colony forming units”, is a reflection of the number of viable bacteria in each dose. In theory, a claim of 1 billion CFU means that we in the lab could generate 1 billion colonies of bacteria by cracking open a capsule and growing the contents on agar plates. This number is very important for most of the probiotic supplements on the market, because the bacteria don’t take up residence in our gut; they travel through, and on their trip they grow and produce important by-products which contribute to the health of not just the gut, but the rest of the body as well. If a probiotic doesn’t contain a high enough number of helpful bacteria, you simply won’t get the desired effect.

In many cases, the authors found that there were far fewer CFU in the probiotics they studied than the label suggested. Here at Wasatch, we’ve noticed the same thing; one US-made supplement we looked at, boasting 25 million CFU, contained no viable bacteria at all! While there may still be some benefit to taking non-viable bacteria or bacterial by-products, the fact remains that there is a discrepancy between the claims of the label and reality, and customers are paying for a product which will have no beneficial effect on their health.

Does your probiotic actually contain the strains shown on the label?

The other point made in this article was that the probiotic strains listed on the supplements they studied were not always accurate. Particular species of probiotic bacteria are used for their particular health benefits, so it is very important that a supplement contains what it claims to. Lactobacillus gasseri, Bifidobacterium longum, and Bacillus coagulans are all commonly found on the probiotics shelf, but each has its own role to play in promotion of health. The researchers used biochemical tests and MALDI-TOF MS (a means of identifying the proteins in a sample, which can be used to infer the bacteria present) to evaluate the strains in each probiotic. At Wasatch Scientific, we utilize Next-Generation Sequencing technology to determine the identities of bacteria, but the end goal is the same.

Probiotic products can gain a competitive advantage through scientific support

This journal article underscores the importance of quality control in probiotics; consumers need to know that the supplements they are purchasing and putting into their bodies are what they claim, and it behooves manufacturers to provide this peace-of-mind to their customers. A statement as simple as “verified by DNA sequencing” (backed up by credible science) would go a long way toward building confidence, and could represent a competitive advantage to those probiotic suppliers who choose to include it.

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