Guidelines standardizing probiotic products are being drafted by the Indian Council of Medical Research and will be ready in February.
"A staggering array of probiotic-laced drinks and foods making many claims are available, most of them unsubstantiated. The guidelines will help set uniform standards for labelling to ensure no false claims are made," said Dr Nirmal K. Ganguly.
Ganguly is distinguished biotechnology fellow, government of India, and is part of the group drafting the guidelines.
Probiotics occur naturally in foods such as yoghurt, fermented and unfermented milk, miso, some juices and soy drinks.
They are part of the 100 trillion microorganisms from over 500 different species that inhabit a normal, healthy human gut, and aid digestion and nutrient absorption.
Most probiotics in India are sold as dietary supplements and do not undergo the testing and approval processes that medicines do.
The new guidelines will recommend companies will clearly have to mention the amount of live bacteria being used and ensure the cold-chain — that insures the active agent remains viable and does not die, losing its potency in the process — is not broken.
For example, chocolates claiming to be probiotic are not so because the manufacturing process involves heating, which kills the live bacteria. Similarly, frozen yogurts cannot be probiotic because they are stored at near-zero temperatures, destroying the bacteria.
Hundreds of studies show the benefits for specific strains, but most Indian products do not list the stain being used for fortification. "We did a study that showed the probiotics L. casei Shirota cut down the incidence of diarrhoea in slum children by 15 per cent. This means products using this strain can claim health benefits, but not others that use a different strain," said Dr G. B. Nair, director, National Institute of Cholera And Enteric Diseases, Kolkata.
Studies have also linked probiotics with the treatment of vaginal yeast infections and urinary tract infections, shortening the duration of intestinal infections, prevention and treatment of inflammation following colon surgery, etc, but no studies have been done on the Indian population.