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Are Probiotics Really the Secret to Good Health (Or Just the Latest Crackpot Supplement Fad?)

Proponents claim probiotics can prevent asthma and cure irritable bowel syndrome, colic, yeast infections, acne -- even autism. Have the claims of benefit gone too far?

For some Americans, the world's happiest headline is "You may be entitled to cash." Luckily for them, that sentence crowns a press release that went out this week which also includes the phrase "You could receive up to $100," and describes "a $35,000,000 fund," then boosts its cred with: "A federal court authorized this notice."

And all because a California woman ate yogurt thinking it would regulate her digestion, but -- according to the lawsuit she filed -- it didn't.

A statement released February 16 by the San Diego, California-based law firm Blood, Hurst & O'Reardon announced that the claim period has just opened in a class-action lawsuit against Dannon. Two years in the making, the suit claims the yogurt company "falsely advertised the health benefits of its Activia and DanActive branded products."

Dannon, which promoted these yogurts as being probiotic and digestion-friendly, has pledged to refund every eligible claimant professing to have bought Activia or DanActive since these products were first introduced in 2006 and 2007. If so many forms are filed as to exhaust the initially-agreed-upon $35 million, the fund goes up another $10 million.

"We want as many people as possible to make claims," says Tim Blood, lead counsel in the case. "There's no proof of purchase at all required, just a claim form. Obviously, a lot of people don't keep store receipts," he points out, so claimants can create and sign documents stating under penalty of perjury "that they bought $75 or $100 worth of this stuff."

Ever since Activia and DanActive entered the marketplace, Dannon has promoted them by touting the probiotic microorganisms they contain. They entered the marketplace just about when probiotics (the term was coined in 1965) started becoming very trendy indeed, when the immunity-boosting, infection-preventing, constipation-curing properties probiotics proponents had been praising for decades in the alt-health world went mainstream. Intrigued by the claims and by the apparent promise of regularity, Los Angeles-area caterer Trish Wiener tried Activia, but believed it did nothing for her gut. The suit ensued. Standing by its advertising and its products while maintaining it did nothing wrong, Dannon agreed to settle -- but only because going through the courts "is an extremely expensive and time-consuming process," says Dannon spokesperson Michael Neuwirth. "It requires a tremendous amount of focused attention, which we would rather devote to providing consumers with good products."

Because Dannon is a multibillion-dollar company, the lawsuit has spurred a media hullabaloo. As a result, anyone who hadn't heard about probiotics before last September, when settlement talks began, has now.

Some called the suit frivolous, since for many years it was Dannon's standing policy to offer money-back guarantees on its products. Lamenting the damage done not just to Dannon but to the reputations of yogurt, fermented foods and probiotics in general, some compared the settlement to negotiating with terrorists. Others saw the settlement as proof that probiotics are a scam. This sent still others into mourning as they watched their hopes for wonder cures wither in the wind.

At the heart of it all are microbes with scary names such as Streptococcus thermophilis and Bifidobacterium animalis, which are very much alive and which, with every mouthful of yogurt or other fermented foods, enter the body, where they stay alive, thriving in the warm busy depths of the stomach and bowel and interacting with other bacteria that also live there -- multiplying as fast as they can, because, granted, an individual microbe lives only about 20 minutes.

Our digestive tracts are studded with settlements swarming with little colonists, in us but not of us and, scariest of all, not us. Because probiotics are not regulated by the FDA, their marketing in either food or supplement form can slip through certain legislative cracks; the closest any agency has come to an official definition is the World Health Organization and the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which together released a statement calling probiotics "live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host."

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