Glance across the dairy aisle at any major grocery store during its busiest hours and you'll likely see the same thing: the yogurt section crammed with carts.
What's happening? Confused shoppers, locked in a standstill, peruse the dozens of yogurt brands on the shelves in search of the best one for them -- full-fat, low-fat, flavoured, plain, sugar-free, gelatin-free, Greek, Balkan, organic.
And perhaps the most complicated term to consider: Probiotic.
Nearly 100 experts from across North America -- including scientists who work for yogurt companies -- gathered at the University of Manitoba's Richardson Centre for Functional Foods last week to discuss the research behind probiotics.
The goal? To gather enough legitimate information together so yogurt companies can convince governments to allow them to make health claims about probiotics on yogurt labels.
The term "probiotic" refers to the so-called good bacteria in fermented foods such as yogurt.
The move to make direct health claims about probiotics on labels, says Richardson Centre director Peter Jones, will help consumers better understand the health benefits of the friendly bacteria.
He also admits it will be an effective marketing tool for the food industry.
"Businesses obviously want to sell yogurt. Scientists want to get the science right. Regulators want to have the right level of messaging on the product. That's what we are here to talk about," says Jones, the nutritional biochemist behind the $31.2-million Richardson Centre, a cutting-edge lab that receives about 60 per cent of its research funding from food companies such as Unilever and Danone.
Societies around the world have consumed yogurt -- and other probiotic-containing foods -- for thousands of years. (These substances occur naturally in all fermented products).
More recently, yogurt companies have been developing their own strains for probiotics, using them to sell their products.
Probiotics has become a buzzword in the yogurt industry, in part due to the marketing efforts of the French company Danone, the makers of Activia yogurts.
Scientists say these bacteria can do everything from preventing colon cancer to reversing vaginal infections. Most consumers have heard about the role of probiotics in promoting "digestive health." (Remember the dancing bellies that appeared for years in one company's TV spots?)
Jones and his peers want consumers to understand clearly what different strains of probiotics can do for health by printing such information on product labels.
His job won't be easy. Yogurt companies in Canada and the United States are not allowed to include health claims about probiotics on packaging.
Meanwhile, the U.S. arm of Danone settled a class-action lawsuit in 2009 in which the company paid more than $21 million for exaggerating the science behind the claims that some of their yogurts could aid digestion or prevent colds.
Shortly after, a Montreal woman won a class-action lawsuit over the same advertising issues.
Earlier this year, the European Food Safety Authority effectively banned the use of the term probiotics on food labels in Europe.
Jones and his colleagues fear the same fate is in store for products sold in Canada.
"What's happening there is the health claims for probiotics are being denied. There's not much they can do," says Jones. "(Regulators) might do the same thing here in Canada."
Gregor Reid, a Lawson Health Research Institute microbiologist who has studied probiotics for 30 years, says such a decision would be a travesty.
The former chairman of the United Nations/World Health Organization panel on probiotics was in Winnipeg for the Richardson Centre conference.
He says much of the published, peer-reviewed science proves probiotics can save lives and physicians need to understand that.
"It's verging on malpractice to not to use probiotics in certain situations," says Reid, who believes patients taking antibiotics should also be on a probiotic product to counter the drug's harmful effects.
He says hospitals in Australia have given probiotics to premature babies at risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis, a deadly disease that inflames the small intestine.
"(Probiotics are) not a fad that's just going to go away one day," Reid said.
He wrote about his proposed probiotic labelling system recently in the journal Nature.
"Unless we put a rocket in the system, it's going to take forever."
Jones may be that rocket.
The Winnipegger counts among his many accomplishments his lobbying effort on behalf of Unilever a few years ago. That's when he and a team of industry members, scientists and lawyers approached the federal government with supporting science and urged it to allow Becel margarine to print the cholesterol-lowering health benefits of its product on its label.
"We needed to find a way together to get Canada to sell plant sterols in foods. Sure enough... we found a way," he told the Free Press in a 2011 interview.
Gina Sunderland, a registered dietitian with CancerCare Manitoba, is all for probiotic labelling on yogurts.
"I just see it as a win-win," says the mother of two, noting that yogurt has always been a staple in her household, partly for its probiotic content.
Sunderland says researchers she's spoken with have suggested the benefits of yogurt in preventing colon cancer and even in treating it. "I was just wowed."
She admits certain brands contain high amounts of sugar, which can be detrimental to people with high triglycerides or diabetes.
"But there are so many options out there," she says, noting that plain yogurt is usually the healthiest option. "You can add fruit to it and sweeten it yourself."
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