There are several “pros” to any discussion of probiotics. For starters, consider that Global Industry Analysts predicts global sales of probiotic-enhanced products will surpass $28.8 billion in annual sales by 2015.

Not to be too contrary, but a study published in Nature finds consumers might be misinformed about probiotics in general. Specifically, Nature’s report targeted probiotics’ claim to improve digestive health and boost the immune system. The problem, study authors contended, was that these probiotics are seldom, if ever, tested to confirm the benefits.

Meanwhile, Lawson Health Research Institute researchers are calling for a new system to evaluate products containing live microorganisms. They are asking for clearly defined tests that would grade the quality of the product and its claims.

"Thus, regulators could quickly and easily determine whether or not the product met the standard and approve the stamp, and consumers would be able to understand the extent to which the product has been tested,” commented Dr. Gregor Reid, the Nature study’s author and a scientist at Western University. He noted the goal is to develop a stamp that would be recognized worldwide.

Nature’s study findings also prompted a response from Glenn Gibson, professor of food microbial sciences at the University of Reading, U.K., “The idea [of a new evaluation system] clearly has merit, given the current confusing situation for consumers, but will regulators have the courage to even consider implementing something so sensible? Sadly, I doubt it, although given the high profile of the publication in Nature, and sincerity of the idea, I can only live in hope.”

The issues surrounding probiotic claims are by no means confined stateside. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has essentially rejected all probiotic health claims submitted in recent years. However, one member state has an approach that skirts the regulation. The Italian Ministry of Health contends probiotics should be able to carry product information about their contributions to healthy gut microflorae. Furthermore, the ministry argues such statements are permitted under the 2002 E.U. Food Supplements Directive.

Admittedly, the Italian authority’s efforts are directed solely at gut microflorae and not immunity claims. What’s more, the EFSA will assuredly evaluate any such claims closely, particularly in a probiotics market as strong as Italy’s, where probiotic food supplements account for $470 million, annually, and $624 million worth of probiotic yogurts are sold per year, according to Euromonitor.

Speaking at the International Probiotics Association’s World Congress in April, one Euromonitor market analyst said gut health and immunity may be just the beginning of probiotic benefits. Evidence indicates probiotics may enhance protein utilization. In particular, protein-rich supplements have been shown to cause gastrointestinal distress in certain instances. A probiotic supplement or enriched food could alleviate such conditions and provide immunity support, to boot. In addition, one strain of probiotic has increased protein utilization, specifically the absorption of leucine, by 23%.

If a mouse study out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is any indication, probiotics may boost virility, as well. Male mice fed a vanilla-flavored probiotic yogurt had a “certain swagger” and inseminated their partners more quickly (and led to larger litters) than male mice with diets of normal or, essentially, junk food. The benefit was not confined to the male sex: females had larger litters and were more successful at weaning their pups. Both sexes were also notably slimmer after consuming probiotics and had shinier fur. In fact, the research authors noted yogurt-fed mice had 10 times the active follicle density of the control group.

Nevertheless, digestive health remains among probiotics’ strongest selling points, and research is indicating the way to a person’s heart -- or at least to the brain -- may be through the gut.

UCLA researchers say a study of healthy female patients found that those who consumed probiotic-infused yogurt had a muted response from brain regions involved in emotional arousal and stressful gut signaling.

"By changing the environment in the gut, we can actually change what happens in the brain," suggests Kirsten Tillisch, MD, of UCLA. The double-blind, controlled, parallel study of 45 women (ages 18-50 without psychiatric or medical illness) evaluated non-fermented yogurt and probiotic yogurt containing B. lactis CNCM I-2494, yogurt symbiosis L. bulgaricus, S. thermophilus, and L. lactis. In sum, the results indicated a change “in balance of the bacteria in the gut through chronic probiotic consumption may alter emotional response to negative stimuli,” said Tillish.

While yogurt may be the most common source of probiotics for consumers (Chobani, Danone and Activia have all added to their probiotic-enhanced offerings in recent months), consumers are finding probiotics in other categories, notably beverages.

The Republic of Tea has introduced Be Well Red Tea Get Probiotic Herb Tea for Digestive Health. The naturally caffeine- and gluten-free herbal tea blend is made with organic red rooibos tea, cinnamon and a probiotic that promises to support healthy digestion and provide antioxidants. Millennium Products likewise has added a probiotic beverage. G.T.'s Synergy Organic & Raw Gingerberry Drink is made with kombucha and boasts organic amino acids, electrolytes, probiotics and antioxidants. Probiotics have even emerged in cereals, even though its inclusion is in a familiar form. H-E-B has launched Active, a whole-wheat cereal with yogurt, blackberries, figs, honey and mangos. Its yogurt drops contain Lactobacillus acidophilus, a familiar probiotic but in a novel presentation.

 From the June 25, 2012, Prepared Foods E-dition