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Eat your germs


1 Star

Eat your germs

Our Review Summary

The story highlights the booming industry of selling bacteria-containing products for an array of ailments, mostly relating to the GI tract, and generally reiterates claims of efficacy while not relaying any evidence thereof. It did not provide a critical examination of the claims made, which is unfortunate. The author could have looked for some evidence of efficacy in published, peer-reviewed literature.

Three times the story refers to "superstar bacteria" and states that “There is a fair body of science suggesting that some consumers are spending their dollars wisely.” But the story never delivers that scientific evidence.  The marketing of probiotic products is in its infancy, and it is premature to gin up enthusiasm for probiotics while neglecting to substantiate a single claim.

The story fell short of best practice in health journalism by:

  • failing to discuss costs of probiotic products;
  • disease-mongering on the question of "regular" bowel movements;
  • failing to quantify the potential benefits and harms – based on the evidence;
  • and failing to include any interview material from an independent source, instead giving the magazine space over to a physician promoting his book.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There was no mention of the costs of probiotic containing products; there was no discussion of whether there is any sort of price differential between traditional products and those to which probiotics or additional probiotics have been added.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The story made health claims without reference to data supporting the claims.  In fact, the medical literature does not support the claims made in this story.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story did provide potentially useful information about the kinds of people who should avoid consumption of probiotic containing foods. However, the story did not contain sufficient information about the nature of the evidence demonstrating this to be true.  Have there been any studies done comparing outcomes of people with ‘weakened immune systems’ (whatever that includes) who have and have not consumed probiotics?

And while the story did mention that it is common for people who have begin to consume probiotic containing foods to experience uncomfortable bloating, it failed to report on more serious risks associated with probiotic use.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The story did not do an adequate job of informing readers about the sources of its factual content.  It also failed to back up the health claims it made (regularity, relief of allergy symptoms).  The column should have given readers some idea about the weight of the evidence.

Instead, this story seemed to be a cheerleading piece for the use of probiotic containing products.  Here is some of the evidence this story didn’t present. 

  • Meta-analysis of whether probiotics prevented antibiotic associated diarrhea in children found that intention-to-treat analysis failed to demonstrate benefit (Cochrane Database Systematic Review, 2007). 
  • Additionally – a recent randomized controlled trial found that probiotic treatment increased mortality risk in patients with pancreatitis (Lancet 2008). 

If the intention was merely to inform readers about the impact of probiotics on regularity, it would have been helpful to know the percentage of people reporting symptom relief after probiotic containing food – and how much such food and for how long.  


Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Not Satisfactory

This column allowed the book-promoting, probiotics-promoting physician-author get away with perpetuating the notion that there is a correct – or "regular" frequency – of bowel movements to which healthy people should aspire.  This myth sells products.  And maybe it’s the subject of the next book.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

Though the story included quotes from the author of a book on probiotics, it failed to include any insight from independent experts.  It should have included information from experts in the field without an association to a marketable product.  A link to something like NIH’s site about probiotics would have lent some credibility to the information the story tried to impart.

Stating that the FDA is "neutral" obscures the fact that foods are not regulated in the same way as drugs. 

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story missed the mark by failing to compare and contrast probiotic availability from the foods they are naturally found in with foods specifically fortified with probiotics.  Is there really any difference between eating Activia or Dannon yogurt?  And if the point of the story was to educate viewers about allergies and bowel regulation, it should have mentioned generally accepted treatment options for these.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The story indicated that there are current products for sale in grocery stores that contain probiotic bacteria and that in addition, there are new products being developed.  However – the story should have mentioned that there is no evaluation process to ascertain that the products sold as probiotics actually contain the organisms in the doses advertised. So true "availability" is difficult to ascertain.  Consumers should know this.

It should be noted that the table that is a part of this story provides an inadequate listing of sources of probiotic containing foods. 

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story was clear that many currently available foods contain probiotics and that there is an industry developing to enhance foods with probiotics. However, one could ask, is yogurt novel?

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Not Applicable

We can’t be sure if the column relied solely or largely on a news release.  We can be sure that it seemed to rely almost exclusively on an interview with a book-promoting, probiotics-promoting physician.

Total Score: 1 of 9 Satisfactory


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