Brave New World of Probiotics

Digestive Health Tortilla

I found this little packet of tortillas at the grocery store recently. The words “Digestive Health” will always catch my eye, but what exactly do these words have to do with a white flour tortilla? Well, these tortillas have probiotic cultures in them, specifically, a patented strain called GanedonBC30.

In spite of dearly loving all things probiotic and fermented, I have some reservations about this product! Let’s look into it.

First of all, these tortillas call to mind one of Michael Pollan’s central guidelines to healthy eating: “Avoid food products that make health claims”. As he explains in his book In Defense of Food, a product that has a health claim must first have packaging to put the claim on, and that fact alone means it is more likely to be a highly processed food product than a whole food. In addition, marketing claims typically originate from the strength and influence of the marketing departments of big food companies, rather than being based on reality… thus explaining how the FDA and organizations such as The American Heart Association have allowed their stamp of approval on foods such as Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs.

Sure enough, this product is highly processed, truly a “food product” rather than an actual food. Let’s take a look at the ingredients:

Enriched Bleached Flour (Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Water, Vegetable Shortening (Interesterified and Hydrogenated Soybean Oils), contains 2% or less of: Salt, Sugar, Baking Soda, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Distilled Monoglycerides, Enzymes, Cellulose Gum, Guar Gum, Fumaric Acid, Maltodextrin, Bacillus coagulans GBI-30 6086, Calcium Propionate and Sorbic Acid (to maintain freshness)

Bleached white flour, preservatives, thickeners, distilled monoglycerides? I think our guts would be better off without the probiotic, if this is its vehicle. Ironically, wheat flour, preservatives, and thickeners such as guar gum have been shown to negatively interfere with our gut health and gut microbes. (This will be subject of a future blog post.)

In addition, although these tortillas proudly advertise that they have “0 grams of TRANS FAT PER SERVING”, one of the very first ingredients is “interesterified and hydrogenated soybean oils”, which is the new replacement for partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat), and is likely just as bad as, if not worse, than its precursor. (Check out my previous post about this topic.)

Now back to Pollan’s point about the heft of the marketing power of large food companies. Let’s take a look at the website of Ganeden, the company that makes the probiotic found in these tortillas. In their FAQs, they explain that their GanedonBC30 is the “only spore-forming probiotic to receive FDA GRAS” – which means FDA approval that it is safe. Does this mean that this is the only safe probiotic? No… it just means that “only the big food companies have the wherewithal to secure FDA-approved health claims for their products and trumpet them to the world” (Pollan 154).

GanedenBC30 is made from bacillus coagulans, which is a spore-forming bacteria. Ganeden has used this spore-forming trait to create a product that can withstand the “harsh processing” that our modern food goes through. Ganeden has a “Probiotics 101” lesson on their website that has some questions to consider when “choosing a probiotic”:

  • Does it survive the extremes of manufacturing?
  • Does it survive the shelf life of the product?

This illustrates that the intent of GanedenBC30 is to be a probiotic product that can withstand the extreme processing that much of our food undergoes, as well as the lengthy shelf life that often results from said processing. This is great for food companies, but not necessarily so great for consumers. Why?

  • If the probiotic spores withstand such “harsh processing”, will it truly effectively leave the spore state and benefit our guts, rather than just passing through?
  • Assuming that it does, to what extent does eating the highly processed food in which GanedenBC30 is found obviate any health benefit of the probiotic?
  • There are countless beneficial effects of probiotics that cannot be encapsulated in one single hardy strain of bacteria. “Probiotics” have traditionally been consumed as fermented food (think yogurt and sauerkraut), not as pills or manufactured additives. With fermentation we get enzymes, increased nutrients, and improved nutrient absorption from the foods that have been fermented. We also get multiple strains of bacteria, not just a single one.

These tortillas serve as a reminder that marketing claims must be taken with a grain of salt. Ultimately, food companies are shamelessly taking advantage of people who want to take positive steps for their health. Yet in the end there is no substitute for whole, unprocessed foods, no matter what it may say on the packaging. Continue reading