Dr Tee E Siong is the Probiotics Education Programme (PEP) Chairman and Nutrition Society of Malaysia President.
With the probiotics market having expanded in recent years, we have seen a robust growth of probiotics product varieties, including yoghurts and cultured milk drinks increasingly lining supermarket shelves.Choose the best and genuine probiotics products for your family.
So, with the dizzying array of choices available, how then do you decide which is the best choice for your family? Growing evidences in probiotics research demonstrating the benefit of friendly bacteria in improving our gut and overall health have led to consumers’ confidence in probiotics and their surge in popularity.
In recognition, the Health Ministry has passed a food regulation on probiotics products in 2018 to safeguard the interests of consumers and protect us from fraudulent practices. Regulation 26A of the Malaysia Food Regulation 1985 provides a legal definition of probiotics and also controls the types of beneficial bacteria/live cultures that can be used as probiotics by the food manufacturers. This law spells out clearly what are genuine probiotics-containing products
Regulation 26A has given a clear definition to probiotics culture, which means “live microorganisms that can provide health benefits to the human body when consumed in adequate amounts.”
To gain health benefits from probiotics, you must first be able to determine the quality and authenticity of the product. In accordance with the criteria stipulated in the food regulation, there are key areas consumers need to be mindful of when choosing genuine probiotics products among all the varieties in the market.
Check that the product contains permitted probiotics cultures
Among products that may contain added probiotics cultures are cultured milk, fermented milk products, yoghurt, cultured cream or sour cream. However, did you know that not just any probiotics culture can be added to foods and beverages? Only specific probiotics strains that have been assessed and approved by the Health Ministry for safety and health benefits to human can be added to food products.
This strict procedure is aimed at safeguarding the interests of the consumer.
Currently, there are 32 probiotics strains permitted to be added into foods and beverages by food manufacturers. All are from the bifidobacterium and lactobacillus genera. The particular strain(s) in the product must be indicated on the label, complete with the genus, species and strain (see section on Reading Product Label below).
Ensure that the product contains “live organisms”
To provide health benefits to the consumer, a probiotics product must contain live bacterial cultures, which must remain so during its shelf life.
When choosing probiotics-containing foods, you should look for the words “live cultures” or “contains live microorganisms” on the packaging. This will help you identify genuine probiotics-containing products as only products that meet the probiotics requirements are allowed to indicate as such.
The product must contain “adequate numbers” of the bacterial cultures
This is an essential part of the requirement. A product can only be claimed as a probiotics-containing food or product if it contains an adequate number of live (viable) bacteria during the shelf life.
A genuine probiotics-containing product must contain at least 106 (one million) cfu/ml or 106 (one million) cfu/g live bacteria cells as this is the minimum concentration needed to obtain the desired health benefits of the probiotics.
This live (viable) count of the probiotics are measured in colony forming units (CFU), which indicate the number of live bacteria cells in the products. This amount will be written on the label/container of a probiotic product, for example “107 cfu/ml” or “107 cfu/g”.
Read the product label to identify genuine products
To identify genuine probiotics products which fulfil all the three requirements, remember to read the label.
Below is an example showing the packaging of a probiotics food labelled with important features to look for when purchasing a probiotics food/beverage:
You may find the label of some probiotics-containing products with health claims such as "Probiotics cultures help in improving intestinal or gut function" or using words of similar meaning. This general health claim is permitted for foods with added probiotic cultures.
However, be aware of any probiotics-containing products that claim to prevent specific diseases or health problems, as the law does not permit this.
Beneficial bacteria and probiotics
Some fermented foods, such as your favourite tempeh, kimchi or homemade yoghurt, could be sources of good bacteria. However, they may not necessarily meet the requirement to be called probiotics-containing foods and hence, are without the label and cannot use the label “probiotics”. Nevertheless, it may be beneficial to consume these foods as they contain beneficial bacteria.
The availability of different varieties of probiotics products in the market allows us to pick the ones that suit our needs and preference. The probiotics regulation helps ensure that the probiotic culture in these products is safe for our consumption.
Now, with the information provided in this article, you will be able to make a smart choice in purchasing genuine probiotics-containing products, so that you can include them as part of your healthy diet and benefit from them.
Rely on professional information such as those from the Probiotics Education Programme of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia (www.nutriweb.org.my/probiotics)
For more information on the activities of the PEP, go to www.nutriweb.org.my/probiotics