As probiotics are gaining popularity, a recent study investigates the reliability of information online. They find that the majority of “best” websites provide information without scientific evidence.
As scientists become more and more interested in the role of gut bacteria, so does the public. With the rise of the microbiome, probiotics have become increasingly popular.
Probiotics are living organisms that manufacturers add to a range of foods, most commonly yogurts. Their marketing information often contains a range of health claims, from improving digestive health to boosting the immune system.
Probiotics are now big companies. In 2017, the probiotics market in the United States was worth more than $ 40 billion, according to the authors of the recent study.
As with many products today, online sales and marketing play an important role. With this in mind, researchers from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the United Kingdom and the Free University of Brussels in Belgium have assessed the accuracy of the online claims about these products.
To investigate, they collected information from the top-ranked web pages in Google searches. The co-author, Professor Michel Goldman, explains that “often the public will not exceed the first 10 results – these will therefore have a higher visibility and impact”.
First, the authors analyzed the pages for “accuracy and completeness”. Then they checked the information against the Cochrane Library, which is a database of factual medical information, including clinical trials and meta-analyzes.
Professor Goldman explains their approach: “We evaluated the first 150 web pages created by a Google search for” probiotics “and recorded their origin and the diseases they mentioned. The scientific evidence for the health benefits of probiotics against these diseases was then examined for their scientific rigor. “
They published their results in the newspaper Frontiers in Medicine.
Scientists have found that the majority of the top 150 websites are news or business – 31% and 43%, respectively. Overall, news and business sites were the least reliable sources of information as they rarely mentioned regulatory issues or side effects for vulnerable people, such as those who are immunocompromised.
Of the 150 web pages, only 40% mentioned that the benefits of probiotics require further research, 35% made reference to the scientific literature, only 25% listed potential side effects and only 15% mentioned regulatory provisions.
In the four categories covered above, commercial websites scored the lowest. In the top 10 Google results, the scores were higher.
The authors explain that Google’s algorithms are relatively successful in ensuring that trusted health portals are at the top of the search list: in the top 10 Google search entries, trusted health portals occupy the majority of time slots.
However, as Professor Pietro Ghezzi explains, “the fact that there is such a large amount of business information is problematic for consumers who are looking for honest answers”.
Researchers investigated specific health claims in more detail, comparing them to the Cochrane database. Although websites claim that probiotics treat a range of ailments, the evidence is seriously lacking.
To date, the evidence only supports the use of probiotics to treat a handful of conditions, including infectious diarrhea and necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm infants. Even in these cases, scientists must continue their research.
Overall, 93 of the 150 websites claimed that probiotics can strengthen the immune system. In reality, as the authors explain, this “has barely been studied in clinical trials”.
Likewise, a significant number of websites claim that probiotics may help relieve mental disorders and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Again, scientists have done very little research on these subjects.
In all, there were 325 specific health claims on the web pages the scientists investigated. The scientific evidence supported only 23% and 20% had no convincing evidence to support it. These results are important, as the authors explain:
“In the current era, where distrust of medical experts and health authorities is widespread, the individual consumption of over-the-counter health products is largely guided by information collected on the Internet. “
They continue: “Since probiotics escape scrutiny from regulatory authorities, it is of the utmost importance to have an overview of the level of reliability provided by online information about their benefits and risks.”