[Update: 20-Sep-2009: Dannon has settled the false-advertising lawsuit I wrote about in Feb 2008. Of course, they have denied all claims and have admitted no wrongdoing. The good news is that once the settlement is approved, consumers who purchased their yogurt will be eligible for a $100 rebate depending on how much they purchased. Vindication? Should they do more? Was it the consumers' fault to believe their claims in the first place? Sound off in the comments!]
There was a time (not too long ago) when the only choice you had to make at the Yogurt aisle was “Plain or Flavored?”. Today you are accosted by easily more than 20 varieties including frozen yogurt, live-and-active-cultures-yogurt and even yogurt with fruit on the bottom.
In early 2006 Dannon came up with a brand new type: Probiotics-enhanced Activia yogurt that is supposed to regulate your digestive system and followed it up a year later with their DanActive “dairy-drink” that would strengthen your body’s defense.
Then Dannon was sued:
A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in Los Angeles claims the Dannon Co. Inc., owner of the world’s best-selling yogurt brand, bamboozled tens of thousands of customers into paying extra for Activia and other yogurts falsely touted as offering special nutritional benefits. [ABC News]
What are Probiotics anyway? According to Dannon’s own website, “Probiotics are living microorganisms, usually lactic acid bacteria, that when consumed in sufficient numbers can provide health benefits that go beyond basic nutrition”. In other words, it’s a form of live-and-active-culture called “Bifidus Regularis” that is added to the yogurt with certain characteristics that are supposed to make it extra-beneficial: safe to eat, high shelf-life and presence n enough quantity to be of help.
But what quantities of these cultures are “enough” and what real benefits do they confer?
…medical experts disagree over what the right amounts are and what kind of benefits they could have, according to Dr. Roshini Rajapaksa, an assistant professor of medicine at New York University.
“Probiotic bacteria have only been proven to help with very specific disorders,” she says. “Probiotics is an exciting field, but it is too early to make â€¦ general claims like ‘regulates your digestive system.’ That doesn’t mean anything in medical terms.”
So, while it’s probably true that more of the bacteria in this product survive the stomach acids and reach your colon than from regular yogurt (Consumer Reports article), the question is what real effect these bacteria have and is the extra cost worth it? Also note this from Triathlete:
“If you stop eating it, the bacteria levels rapidly return to their normal levels”. (All those opposed to this lifetime commitment speak now or forever just try to be fit!)
And what about DanActive’s claim that it strengthens your body’s defenses? Again, there is no conclusive proof that this is true and in fact according to the ABC News article, a Dannon-funded study itself concurred with this lack of evidence:
…a report issued last year by the American Academy of Microbiology, a report that Dannon helped fund, says, “To date, there is no conclusive evidence that altering the microbiota of a healthy human adult is beneficial.” The report goes on to say that “the efficacy â€¦ of probiotic treatments has yet to be determined.”
Now Dannon has a website for everything so there’s one for Activia, one for DanActive, then there’s the Probiotics Center and – surprise! – even one for their “Two Week Challenge” (everyone does these by the way, because apparently consumers just love a good challenge!) But even a cursory glance of these websites (which, by the way are loaded with way more technical information than the average consumer can – or would even care to – understand), brings up so many of the “usual suspects” keywords that their claims begin to sound more and more shaky:
- Activia with Bifidus Regularis is scientifically proven to help with slow intestinal transit when eaten daily for two weeks, as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle. [Activia Site]
- Taken every day, DanActive can help strengthen your body’s defenses. [DanActive Site]
- DanActive is believed to have a positive effect on the balance of your intestinal bacteria. [DanActive Site]
As a consumer, it’s in your best interest to look out for catch-phrases like those highlighted above – for these are the exact phrases companies can later use to wriggle out of taking any responsibility for tall claims. Now, don’t get me wrong – the benefits of active cultures may well be true and present, but claiming conclusive results on as yet unsubstantiated research is certainly not in the best interest of millions of consumers.
Just for kicks (well, not really – I do this for all products), I checked the nutrition and ingredient information for Activia Strawberry Yogurt. Well what do you know? Fructose Syrup, Sugar and modified corn starch must make for some yummy yogurt … with 17g of sugar!
If you haven’t already, read my earlier post from last summer about the Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie yogurt. In that ad, Yoplait claimed that eating yogurt would help you lose weight as long as it was part of a sensible diet and active life. Do you see the pattern? Eat Cheerios, lower cholesterol when eaten as part of a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Eat Special K and lose weight when eaten as part of a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Wait a minute, should we all just skip the extraneous stuff and just eat sensibly and be more active?
Well, I certainly think so!
Yes, we live in a world of high-stress with kids, commutes, pollution and more demands on our time than we can think we can handle. Maybe, just maybe, we can solve this by preventing the causes of this stress rather than rushing out to get the next big (unproven) cure.