The banning of a TV ad for Danone's drinking yoghurt brand, Actimel, is the latest reversal to hit the probiotic food and drinks sector. Despite being one of the most prominent categories within the fast-growing functional food and drink market, probiotics have not been immune from controversy. Ben Cooper reports.

The decision by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK to ban a TV ad for Danone's Actimel drinking yoghurt brand represents another reversal for the probiotic sector.

As the functional market has boomed, few areas have attracted more controversy than probiotics, and recent weeks have been particularly bad for the purveyors of 'good bacteria'.

The ASA upheld the complaint against the Actimel advertisement because the evidence Danone provided did not "support the claim made in the ad that a serving of Actimel was scientifically proven to support the defences of normal, healthy school-aged children against common, every-day childhood infections".

The ASA concluded that the ad, which shows a bottle of Actimel jumping over a skipping-rope to the sound of children playing with a voiceover saying "kids love Actimel and it's good for them too" and finishes with the tagline "scientifically proven" on the screen, was "misleading".

Danone UK said Actimel's health benefits had been demonstrated in 23 human studies on over 6,000 people across various age ranges, with eight of those conducted on children up to 16 years old. The company added that it had used the term 'scientifically proven' in its advertisements since November 2007, and argued that each separate study did not have to show multiple health benefits, provided that they point to an overall benefit to drinking Actimel.

Christine Haigh, coordinator for the Children's Food Campaign, said Danone's claims were "the tip of the iceberg" and called for tighter regulation of health claims.

The ASA ruling follows the settlement last month of a 2008 lawsuit against Dannon, Danone's US subsidiary, over the advertising of its Activia and DanActive yoghurts, accusing the company of false advertising in overstating the products' health attributes. Dannon agreed to set up a fund worth US$35m to reimburse consumers and change the labelling and marketing of Activia and DanActive to "increase the visibility of the scientific names of the unique strains of probiotics that are in each of these products".

Perhaps the most worrying recent setback for the probiotics sector came in the form of the rejection of probiotic health claims by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), in the first phase of the review it is conducting under EU regulation 1924/2006 on nutrition and food health claims.

Of the 523 opinions EFSA published across all sectors only around a third were favourable. However, for probiotics specifically, the picture was far worse. Of the 180 probiotic cases examined, nine were rejected as having "negative" opinions on their health claims, while a further 105 were "not sufficiently characterised" and had not provided enough evidence of their effects.

Danone and Yakult withdrew their claims before the EFSA evaluation and have since resubmitted them; those results will not be available until next year. An EFSA spokesperson told just-drinks that a further batch of adjudications will be published early in 2010.

While probiotics have been among the fastest growing categories in the functional food boom, foods containing live bacteria, such as yoghurts and fermented milk, have been consumed for their perceived health benefits for hundreds or even thousands of years. Most of the bacteria consumed in this way do not survive sufficiently well in the gut to be able to make their way to the large bowel where they can do most good. However, specific bacterial strains, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, have been found to survive longer and it is these strains that are mainly found in probiotic products.

Nothwithstanding the ASA and EFSA judgments, there is support for the probiotic marketers' case. The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) states that there is "growing evidence that a regular intake of probiotics may positively influence our health". The World Health Organization also offers some support for the probiotic health claims, stating that live micro-organisms "when consumed in adequate amounts, provide measurable health benefits".

However, the products have found it hard to shrug off consumer and media scepticism. For example, in reporting the EFSA rulings, an article in the Guardian likened today's functional food boom to the exaggerated and usually spurious claims made by food and medicine marketers of the 19th century. The Independent wrote: "Thirty million shoppers have swallowed the claims for probiotics as enthusiastically as the sweet fermented milk in the belief that "good bacteria" will defeat "bad bacteria" in epic microscopic battles inside our bodies."

The recent rulings underline that this scepticism is reflected in the more exacting regulatory environment that probiotic products - along with other functional foods - now face.

As a recent report from just-food.com, Global Market Review of Probiotics - Forecasts to 2013, puts it: "Many of the trends currently affecting the global probiotics market are related to the global regulatory environment, which is generally becoming stricter and affecting which health claims manufacturers can make for their products."

While around 30% of the global population buys into the probiotic dairy sector on a regular basis, this penetration is particularly high in Asia Pacific countries, notably Japan. The report adds: "Elsewhere, fairly high levels of consumer scepticism still exist regarding the efficacy of probiotics, and this is thought to be holding back the market."

Nevertheless, the global probiotics sector (including both foodstuffs and supplements) was worth over US$15.7bn in 2008, representing over 18% of the global functional foods market. Since 2003, the global probiotics market has more than doubled in value terms, and is currently rising by almost 15% per annum, according to the just-food report.

However, while the report forecasts that market value will increase by almost 38% between 2008 and 2013, it predicts a drop in growth from recent levels over the next couple of years.

The probiotic category has always represented something of a dichotomy, being characterised both by controversy and strong growth. But this is partly because doubts over the legitimacy of certain purported health benefits have so far not prevented companies from marketing brands principally on the back of those claims. Recent events suggest this could be about to change.