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Do Activia Probiotics Improve Gut Health?

activia probiotic

Big food companies like Dannon (Danone if you live in Europe) love to tell us their probiotic yogurts can boost our digestive health.

But is Dannon's Activia probiotic yogurt any more effective at delivering these results that say, good old fashioned plain yogurt?

Let's find out...

But first, a quick recap on why we need probiotics

What are Probiotic Bacteria

The official scientific definition of a probiotic as defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agricultural Organisation is...

"Live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”

Live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host


What they mean is...

In order for bacteria to be considered probiotic they must reach the intestinal tract alive and in sufficient quantities to be of benefit.

Not all Live Micro-organisms are Created Equal

Live microorganisms can be found in fermented foods such as yogurt, kerfir, sauerkraut and Kimchi.

But unless the bacteria are scientifically proven to have a beneficial effect they're not truly probiotic.

For example, yogurt is made by adding the lactic acid producing bacteria Lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus to milk.

But they're not recognized as probiotic cultures because they don't reach the intestinal tract alive.

That's why, yogurt brands have to add probiotic strains to qualify as a probiotic food.

Should You Be Taking Probiotics?

Scientific research into the health benefits of probiotics is still growing.

However, a considerable amount of research suggests probiotic cultures may benefit a whole host of digestive issues, skin and inflammatory conditions as well as immune function support and emotional well-being (1).

The beneficial bacteria living in the lower digestive tract provide a protective barrier against disease causing bacteria, pathogens, parasites and yeast infections.

While there is evidence that probiotics do help to improve digestion and gastronomic health, it is hard to say that one brand over another is more effective at doing so.

Go-Ask-Alice  Columbia university 

However, the balance between good and bad is fragile one easily eroded by poor diet, stress, antibiotics, laxatives, antacids and a lack of exercise.

Also, 80% of your immune system resides in your gut. Therefore, a balanced digestive system means a strong immune system.

You may benefit from taking probiotics if any of the following relate to you:

  • want to maintain a healthy gut
  • about to take or have taken antibiotics
  • experience gas and bloating
  • have a digestive disease like irritable bowel syndrome
  • suffer from a skin condition such as eczema 

Activia Probiotic Bifidus Strain

Activia yogurt contains the Bifidobacterium animalis DN 173,010, a proprietary strain of the genus Bifdobacterium. The strain is unique to Activia and isn't contained in other yogurts.

Dannon market their probiotic internationally under the following trade names:  

  • Bifidus Regularis (United States and Mexico)
  • B.L. Regularis (Canada)
  • Bifidus Actiregularis (Brazil)
  • Bifidus Digestivum (UK)
  • Bifidobacterium Lactis (EU)

Activia Probiotic Health Claims

In the past, Dannon got into legal hot water marketing 'exaggerated' health claims that didn't have sufficient evidence to support them. More on this in a moment.

Today, Activia's health claims are more modest. 

Survives Passage to the Gut

Dannon claims their probiotic strain "is proven to stay alive all the way from your mouth to your gut."  

Great, but will there be enough to make a difference?

Dannon claims "over 4 billion Bifidus in every 120g pot of Activia".

That may seem a lot, but considering many dietitians suggest 12 billion a day is needed to maintain a healthy balance,  you need to be eating 3 pots of Activia a day.

May Reduce Minor Digestive Discomfort

Dannon also claims Activia probiotic yogurt may "help reduce the frequency of minor digestive discomfort".

Minor digestive discomfort?

 Sounds vague.

According to Dannon it means...

  • abdominal discomfort
  • stomach rumbling 
  • bloating 
  • gas

These claims are based on the findings from two double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled studies were participants consuming Activia twice a day for two weeks as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle. 

However, I couldn't a link to these studies on the Dannon website.

Does the Scientific Evidence Support the Health Claims?

According to a systematic review published in The Journal of Public Health the answer is... no.

The systematic review compiled all published human clinical trials exclusively measuring the effects of the probiotic strains Bifidobacterium lactis and Lactobacillus casei.

FYI, L.casei is the probiotic strain used in Dannon's DanActive yogurt drink. In the UK and EU the product is marketed as 'Actimel'.

The aim of the review was to determine whether the scientific evidence supported the health claims made by Dannon in their marketing. 

The health claims being:

"Improving defenses (product containing L. casei) and improved intestinal transit (product containing B. lactis)."

The review panel assessed the strength of evidence with a grading classification of grade 1 for the strongest and Grade 5 for the weakest.  

What they found was interesting...

The research team identified 440 studies involving the two probiotics but only 16 met the inclusion criteria of systematic review. 

At the time of the review, Dannon's website cited 47 of those studies but only 12 met the reviews inclusion criteria.

Furthermore, only 7 out of the 12 studies "demonstrated some positive effect following consumption of milk products enriched with probiotic strains''.

From these 7 studies, 3 were based on the probiotic strain L.casei.

The L.casei studies were graded as a level 5 "because they were based on circumstantial evidence and opinion, and none showed clinical effects in support of the health claims made".

The remaining 4 clinical studies were based on the B.lactis strain and each were graded with a level 1 classification as they provided valid scientific evidence that B.Lactis decreased intestinal transit time

Another interesting discovery was that 7 out of the 16 studies that met the inclusion criteria of the review were sponsored by Dannon.

The systematic review concluded that large multi-national companies such as Dannon are using health claims based on scientific evidence that is insufficient.

What's more, the scientific evidence comes from clinical studies sponsored by the company, meaning the favorable results may not be unbiased

Dannon Health Claims Fall Foul of FTC

In 2009 the FTC brought charges against Dannon accusing them of making exaggerated health claims about their Activia yogurt. 

Their advertising campaign claimed that one daily serving of Activia yogurt could relieve constipation, even prevent colds and flu. 

The commission accused Dannon of deceptive advertising. Dannon defended the claims stating they had scientific evidence to back up them up. 

However, the Commission were having none of it and overruled Dannon stating their clinical studies didn't support their marketing claims.

In the end, Dannon settled out of court and were hit with of $21 million fine for their trouble.

Under the proposed settlement Dannon had to drop claims that their products had a positive effect on the human immune system, unless it was approved by the FTC

Furthermore, if Dannon wished to market the claim, "relieve temporary irregularity or help with slow intestinal transit time" they had to include the disclaimer " three servings per day" disclaimer to achieve the benefit.

Is Activia Probiotic Yogurt Right for You?

It really depends on your needs.

If you're digestive system is healthy and you want to maintain it, adding probiotic yogurt as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle is a great way to start. 

However, choose your yogurt with care. 

Most commercial yogurts, including Activia, are full of sugar or artificial sweeteners.

Sugar is a problem, because it acts like an anabolic steroid to pathogenic (bad) bacteria and makes them stronger.

Increases in bad bacteria lead to dysbiosis. A condition were bad bacteria overwhelm and replace your good bacteria. Left untreated dysbiosis weakens the intestinal wall causing serious conditions such as leaky gut syndrome.

For this reason, choose plain yogurt that's sugar free, has no artificial sweeteners or additives and preferably is fermented from organic milk. 

Most commercial yogurts, unless stated on the label, probably use milk from cows fed with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rGBH). 

Don't Limit Yourself to Yogurt

Although a healthy choice, yogurt provides a limited number of strains compared to other probiotic foods and supplements.

And that's important because a healthy gut is dependent on a diverse range of different bacterial species.

To populate your gut with more good bacteria consider adding fermented foods to your diet.

Fermented foods like Kefir, sauerkraut and kombucha contain a more probiotics than yogurt.

Probiotic Supplements 

If you have specific digestive issues then a quality probiotic supplement would be better choice.

Here's why?

  • Supplements contain specific probiotic strains that are clinically researched to have a beneficial effect on human gut and immune system.
  • Supplements give you a specific and concentrated dose of beneficial bacteria, so you're safe in the knowledge that you're receiving a therapeutic, clinically proven dose each time.
  • Target release and enteric coated capsules ensures the probiotics inside our protected from the harsh acidic of the stomach and reach the intestines alive.

For example, a probiotic supplement containing the strain Lactobacillus reuteri ATCC 55730 has shown to help relieve antibiotic diarrhea (2).

Potential Activia Probiotic Side Effects

According to their official website, Dannon say that consumers of their probiotic yogurts may experience the following side effects:

  • abdominal discomfort
  • stomach rumbling 
  • bloating 
  • gas

Some side effects such as rumbling are not unique to Activia and could be good sign that the probiotics may be having an effect. And for many people, Activia has never caused any problems.

However, its important not to overlook the negative side effects experienced by people who have taken Activia.

Here are the most common complaints I've found after researching several public forums:

Digestive issues

It seems the people who have experienced more than the usual side effects have pre-existing conditions.

Their symptoms have exacerbated after taking Activia resulting in:

  • Watery bowel movements
  • Severe stomach cramps 
  • Constipation
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea

If you already have  pre-existing digestive issues and you experience similar side effects it would be best to stop and get the advise from your doctor.

Lactose Intolerance

People who have experienced more severe symptoms that are accompanied with stomach cramps may indicate a lactose intolerance.

Lactose is the sugar in milk which cannot be digested without the enzyme lactase.

Our digestive system produces lactase, however production declines with age or we our with very little.

If you're lactose intolerant due to an enzyme deficiency consider taking either a non-dairy probiotic or supplement.

Antibiotics

If you're taking antibiotics it would be wise to get advise from your doctor first before taking Activia or any probiotic yogurt.

The reason being is that Lactobacillus, one of the friendly bacteria found in Activia may cause issues in certain people.

Let me explain.

Lactobacillus is friendly because it helps digestive food and absorb nutrients And like all healthy bacteria they need to grow.

However, Lactobacillus has a tendency to grow too much, especially in people with a compromised immune system.

Even an overgrowth of good bacteria can turn bad by causing a bacterial infection.

For this reason, people with AIDS/HIV, cancer or other serious conditions should consult a doctor before taking probiotic yogurt.

Implications for Diabetics 

Recent research tells us that certain yogurts, especially ones containing probiotics can benefit diabetics.

Even the American Diabetics Association recommend yogurt as part of a healthy diet for people with diabetics.

However, the healthiest yogurts for diabetes should be 

  • Sugar free
  • Unflavored
  • Fat free or low fat

For example, Activia's Low Fat Fruit yogurt contains a total of 12 grams of total sugar* per serving.

Although, their 'less sugar' yogurt range has only 9 grams of total sugar.

* Total sugar includes both lactose, the natural sugar from milk and 'added sugar' which can be fructose, fructose syrup, dextrose or glucose.

The Bottom Line 

Activia is a popular yogurt brand.

The yogurt also contains Dannon's exclusive probiotic strain Bifidobacterium lactis making a REAL probiotic yogurt.

Dannon claim their probiotic helps decrease intestinal transit time as suggested in their sponsored clinical trials.

However, the sample size in these trials are very small to be provide a truly accurate verdict.

In regards, to helping minor digestive health issues, the jury is still out as the current scientific evidence is modest at best.

BTW, those results were based on taking at least 2 servings of Activia everyday. 

Two servings contain 180 calories and at a cost of approx $453 a year, that's a lot of both on something that may or may not convey a benefit.  

Online customer feedback is mixed. Some have had positive results while others have experienced negative side effects, especially with pre-existing digestive issues.

Many people love the taste, however the big downside is the sugar content which can interfere with the probiotic bacteria to do their job. 

Personally, I would consider a plain regular yogurt that uses organic milk and is free from sugar and additives. You can add your own fruit or honey to make it taste more appetizing.

Although a good source of protein, calcium and vitamins, yogurt lacks a diverse range of probiotic strains which is why you shouldn't rely on it alone.

There are several other alternatives that can do a better job of helping to diversify your gut flora.


References:

(1) Fermented milk containing Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota prevents the onset of physical symptoms

(2) A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study of Lactobacillus reuteri ATCC 55730 for the prevention of antibiotic-associated diarrhea