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Probiotics’ Benefits May Be More Than a Gut Feeling


4 Star

Probiotics’ Benefits May Be More Than a Gut Feeling

Our Review Summary

The story would have been improved by some effort to quantify the benefits that are attributed to probiotics. We also would like to have seen cost figures attached to some of the products that are mentioned. Overall, though, we were impressed by the story’s generally restrained tone and critical evaluation of the topic.


Why This Matters

Probiotics are clearly helpful for preventing and treating some forms of diarrhea. However, that doesn’t mean that they will prove to be helpful in the many other areas that marketers are touting benefits. Articles like this one can help consumers differentiate fact from fiction regarding these claims, and hopefully prevent consumers from wasting a lot of money on useless products.

This story covers a wide range of health conditions (eczema, colds, high cholesterol, asthma, vaccine response) with very little evidence to support the efficacy of probiotics.  Like many alternative/ complementary therapies, people will keep buying them because they are relatively inexpensive, over the counter, unlikely to cause harm, and perhaps seem to help a little.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story tells us that probiotics sales totaled $770 million last year, but it doesn’t break that figure down as far as what the individual can expect to pay. A quick search on one of the products mentioned showed that a 1-2 month supply will set you back about $68. This is important as many people may not have the resources to pay for their medications prescribed by their physicians.

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

Not Satisfactory

While the story doesn’t make any extravagant claims regarding the benefits of probiotics, it doesn’t attempt to quantify the benefits that it does mention. That might be helpful, for example, when the study mentions that probiotics may “reduce the symptoms and recovery time for the common cold.” In one trial that is frequently cited to support claims that probiotic yogurts prevent the common cold, researchers found that children would have to consume probiotics every day for 100 days to prevent two days with cold symptoms. That kind of context would help readers determine whether the benefits are worth the expense and hassle.

This is the major shortcoming of the piece.  Many alternative therapies are found to have “benefit” in short and poorly conducted trials.

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


The story says that probiotics are generally considered safe except for individuals with a compromised immune system. That’s accurate.

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


The story could have been a little more precise when it says, “…there is little scientific proof of their effectiveness—many studies of probiotics have involved less-than-rigorous research standards.” That’s true for some of the newer applications that the story mentions (cholesterol, colic, etc), but there is actually pretty solid evidence that probiotics are beneficial for other uses like prevention of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. The story recovers when it says, “The strongest clinical studies have suggested some probiotics may be beneficial for certain gastrointestinal problems, allergies and vaginal infections. Many doctors recommend probiotics when patients are taking antibiotics.”

There’s also a helpful explanation of the regulatory status of probiotics and what claims about probiotics mean. An expert notes that claims “are not necessarily preapproved and they may not be well substantiated.”

We’ll rate this satisfactory.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


No disease-mongering.

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


A number of expert sources are quoted. We question the value of comments from a blogger who attributes many personal health benefits to probiotics, but we suppose those comments do help to characterize the business side of the story and explain why sales are growing.  And despite the number of sources quoted, the story never really delivered an independent expert’s evaluation of evidence. The Children’s Hospital source did not address the efficacy of probiotics, only what a microbiome is.  Gerard Mullin from Hopkins is an author and presumably stands to gain if people want to learn more about probiotics.  There are no sources without a conflict of interest who comment on the efficacy issue, which is what the main value of this story could be. Nonetheless, because some of the quotes at least danced around the edges, we’ll rate this as borderline Satisfactory.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Applicable

This story discussed the use of probiotics for multiple conditions. We don’t think the story could be expected to compare alternatives for all of these conditions, so we’ll rate it not applicable.

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


The story notes that probiotics are available in supplements and a variety of other products.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story doesn’t inappropriately emphasize the novelty of research on probiotics.

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


There are enough original sources that we can be sure the story wasn’t based on a press release.

Total Score: 7 of 9 Satisfactory


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