Online probiotic health-benefit claims may be misleading

In a new study, researchers suggest people should be wary of searching for probiotic information online as most webpages originate from unreliable sources and the health-benefit claims are often not supported by robust scientific evidence.

They caution that while Google is adept at sorting the most reliable websites to the top of the list, the majority of websites providing information on probiotics are from commercial sources.

The research was conducted by a team from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, UK and elsewhere.

Probiotics are live organisms that, if the research holds its promise, could be beneficial to health.

There is a large US market for probiotics but less so in the EU, likely due to stricter regulation for health claims.

Nevertheless, the market for probiotics continuously expands with the globalization of online sales.

Concerned that the public has unrealistic expectations about the beneficial effects of probiotics (bolstered by online claims and hype in the news), the team decided to assess the information that the public was exposed to when searching online.

They assessed the first 150 webpages brought up by a Google search for “probiotics”, recorded where they originated from and the diseases they mentioned.

The researchers used the Cochrane library—a database of clinical trials and meta-analyses of evidence-based medicine—to assess the strength of scientific evidence found online.

They also looked at how Google ranked these websites, as often the public will not go past the first ten results—these will, therefore, have higher visibility and impact.

The team found news-outlets and commercial sources made up the majority of the 150 webpages and the analysis showed these were the least reliable, often not mentioning the side effects on immunocompromised individuals nor any regulatory issues.

In addition, the findings of experiments on mice were used to make claims about probiotic benefits against disease in humans.

The fact that there is such a large amount of commercially-oriented information is problematic for consumers who are searching for honest answers.

The lead author of the study is Michel Goldman, a professor at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Innovation in healthcare, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium.

The study is published in Frontiers in Medicine.

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