In the last few years the food industry has been covering packaging with implied health benefits. You know the sort of thing: contains antioxidants; a good source of fibre; probiotic; prebotic, low in sodium and so on.
There are very few foods that are allowed to claim a direct health benefit. Oats and Benecol, for their cholesterol lowering effects, are the only ones I know of.
I am delighted that EFSA (European Food Standards Authority) has just had a crackdown on indirect claims. These are the ones imply that a relationship exists between a particular food and health. This should make shopping a little easier for those who want to eat a healthy diet.
This will be most obvious in the section of the supermarket where yoghurts are displayed. The confusing word "probiotic" has disappeared from the packaging. It will only return when a company can prove that its live cultures have a measurable benefit on some aspect of health.
There are a number of reasons why eating live yoghurt might be beneficial to healthy people - the trouble is that nothing has been clearly proved by systematic experiment on humans.
This is why those little sugary yoghurt drinks are advertised so indirectly. They have to be, so as not to break the law. The manufacturers have tried very hard to get their health claims approved but keeps turning them down EFSA.
There is increasing interest in the potential to use specific "probiotic" bacterial strains as treatment for a range of medical conditions. This is a promising line of research. Currently there is some evidence that using "probiotics" for acute infectious diarrhoea can help to reduce the severity of the attack and that they can also help to prevent diarrhoea caused by antibiotics (see links). More research is needed into the most effective way to use them. We need to know which particular organisms, in which dosages and for which patients. It is not yet possible to say with confidence whether or not consuming ordinary pots of plain yoghurt will have these effects - they may, but more research is needed.
So we are in the position that many people suspect eating live yogurt is good for you. But there is no actual proof. It's easy to digest and it's a good source of calcium and protein - those are the only facts. If you want to be sure your yoghurt is alive then look for other terms on the labels such as "live cultures", "active cultures", "bio" or long Latin names of strains. All the plain, unsweetened yoghurts are probably alive but this may not be the case with sweet yoghurts. Some cheap products appear to be made of milk thickened with starch and some more expensive ones with starch and cream.
It is interesting that many pills and potions, bearing the word probiotic, are still available in pharmacies and supermarkets. The dietary supplement industry sits in a grey area between foods (regulated by EFSA) and the regulation of medicines. At this moment, in Europe, they are regulated much more lightly than food when it comes to implying benefits. So just because they have the word probiotic on them does not mean that they have proven effects.
Probiotics for treating acute infections diarrhoea Cochrane Summaries
Probiotics for prevention of antibiotic associated diarrhoea Cochrane Summaries