Activia – 21st Century Snake Oil?

So I’m guessing you’ve all seen the ads for this yogurt, right? It has live bacteria, bifidus regularis, that is “clinically proven” to regulate your digestion and solve countless intestinal problems. Now when you saw these commercials, did your bullshit detectors go off? Mine sure did. “Regularis”? Are you fucking kidding me? If that’s not suspicious right there, I don’t know what is. So this magical bacteria will solve all your problems. Sound familiar? This medicinal food crap (aka “probiotics”) is the snake oil of the 21st century which is succeeding in this American age of growing ignorance and non-skeptical behavior. Activia sales have soared over the $100 million mark (source – NYT) and of course other companies are looking to cash in as well.

Currently there is no definitive proof for the extravagant claims for probiotic foods like Activia. The FDA is staying neutral on this but one group, the American Academy of Microbiology, said in a 2006 report that ”at present, the quality of probiotics available to consumers in food products around the world is unreliable.” Gary B. Huffnagle, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan and a strong proponent of probiotics, claims there’s evidence to suggest that probiotics may help alleviate some bowel problems and yeast infections but admits, “it’s early in terms of the research”. Although not addressing the actual benefits, Consumer Reports did test whether this bacteria at least gets to your colon as claimed, and found most of it doesn’t survive the trip through your stomach acid. How much makes it? There tests showed 0.1%.

Alright, so there are claims this stuff will cure you and the claims may be bullshit. So what? If idiots are willing to pay more for something like Activia because they believe it will work, that’s their right, isn’t it? Normally I’d agree, but there’s a difference with Activia’s marketing. They say their claims are “clinically” and “scientifically” “proven”. Well now, that’s different and whereas this may be an American age of ignorance, it’s also an age of litigation so now there’s class action lawsuit against Dannon for making such claims. I find this interesting and I”m curious to see what comes of this.

So you’re no doubt wondering why Mr. ranting atheist is bothering with this on his ranting atheist blog. What’s the angle? Well recent debates I’ve been engaged in online with christians involved the usual nonsense of both the efficacy of prayer and verifying their supposed “magic sense” of “knowing” god, their so called “personal revelation” experiences. There are the usual claims that people heal faster when they pray, that believing made it possible to do this or that (therefore there must be a god), and of course the old stand by – lots of people say belief and prayer works for them therefore it must help and there’s a god. If you read through comments by people who regularly consume Activia, the comments are remarkably the same as the testimonies for the efficacy of prayer. As an atheist, I naturally hold that this is all placebo effects, the proverbial Dumbo’s feather. What annoys me is in this Age of Ignorance brought on by the one-two punch of failing Education and religious revival, the ground is fertile for nonsense like this, for snake oil, magic metal bracelets, healing power of crystals, and so on. Don’t get me wrong, there’s always been a place in this country for snake oil salesmen to make a buck, but over $100 million in a year? Come on.

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47 Responses to “Activia – 21st Century Snake Oil?”

  1. I think a good argument could be made that if you say “Oh, God, I need to take a shit,” your prayers will be answered.

  2. The defenders all say that it doesn’t work for everyone, and the implication is the problem is somehow the person it doesn’t help, not the product. Sound like secret sin?

    Of course probiotics can be investigated. That’s one clear difference. Of course you have to actually want to investigate…

  3. Good post.

  4. What about that thing you’re supposed to put on the soles of your feet to draw out “impurities”? THAT makes a lot of sense, too.

    Couple of years ago someone was actually hawking copper bracelets on TV for arthritis.

    I know a lot of people who go to chiropractors, they all say it does them good, but why do they keep going back all the time?

  5. So you’re no doubt wondering why Mr. ranting atheist is bothering with this on his ranting atheist blog. What’s the angle?

    Actually, I wasn’t wondering at all. But you’d probably guess that.

    Homeopathic cures, fear of vaccinations, astrology, Scientology… Jesus. The credulous mind.

  6. Actually Sarge I believe the bracelet guys were successfully sued. We’ll see about this yogurt.

    Evo, I’ve learned it’s dangerous to assume people know certain things, like logical fallacies. For the people in the back I thought it best to spell out the point.

    Ex, I had no idea god was flowing through me every morning. How ironic that often I’m reading Freethought Today while that’s happening.

    Thanks Chaplain.

  7. I knew people who were into the copper thing before I saw it on TV.

    During the civil war men would wear a flannel belly band to guard against the screamin’ shits, and when I worked with horses I knew two people who wore them for the same reasons.

    Here is odd, though. I have an item which had been used by someone in my wife’s family about a century ago which is used to help with “lumbago” and other things. It basiclly shoots a low voltage charge into the muscles and joints. I think they actually have one in the quack cure museum.
    The oddity is that the VA gave me a machine that does basicly the same thing although it’s in a whole lot more modern package, to help my bad hip. I showed the doctor my almost century older example and he could hardly believe it.

  8. How did this older device shoot a current? Was there a battery? Did you plug it in? How old is it?

    I’m open to possibilities of stimulating nerves via electricity or pressure. Still, shooting a current in seems like a stab in the dark, especially coming from decades ago. I would like to think the modern device has some more thought and intent behind it.

    I saw on PBS a year or so ago a device they were experimenting with on paralyzed people that sent electrical currents to the spine to trigger the leg muscles. Some were able to walk again, although clumsily. I think there were switches on it (it was like a huge belt buckle) like walk, stand, etc.

    My wife and her mom have this belief in magnets. All I can say is maybe, but I doubt they do shit.

  9. Sick post.

    I absolutely HATE these types of commercials…always for legal dope like sleep meds and boner boosters – then the fine print “if you get a boner for 5 hours call your doctor!!”

    you know, Charles Taze Russell (of WatchTower acclaim) was convicted of perjury in a federal court for lying to elderly women, telling them that his “miracle wheat” was 4X more ‘healthy’ than standard wheat.

    When tested by non-JW researchers, Russell’s wheat proved to be actually a bit less healthy than standard wheat.

    nothing new under the sun so they say.

  10. PC, this is called “ELEC-TREAT MECHANICAL HEART”.

    It’s main part is like a flashlight which takes batteries and a roller on the end. There are other electrodes which connect to set up a current, these include just a simple padded one made of sponge, a sort of hair brush, and one that is to be inserted in, um, orifaces of the body to “regulate the organs”.

    My wife told me that the last time she saw it used was when she was a small girl. Her grandmother had used the hair brush attachment and walked around looking like a gone-to-seed dandelion for the better part of a day.

  11. Well it’s one thing if they mumble real quick at the end of the commercial all the things that you COULD experience from a product (my favorite is “anal leakage”) but there’s no such thing with this yogurt.

    Perhaps part of the punishment for this should be that Dannon CEOs must get a high voltage ELEC-TREAT in a certain orifice (which may just help with any anal leakage problems they might have as a bonus).

  12. When we would breed a cow or horse my boss had a device which had a component which was inserted into the bull/stallion’s … oriface… and a light current was appled which triggered emission for sampling or even for freezing the sperm. I’m guessing this was a perhaps clandestine use of this electrical device. Kiiiinky.

  13. Yikes!

    I’ve seen several Law & Order episodes where that was a way people killed horses to make it look like a natural death. A current up the ass triggers a heart attack I think. I suppose you could always say you were trying to extract some stallion juice and accidentally turned the juicer up to “11″. Oops. Accident, wink wink, nudge nudge, now where’s that insurance check?

    I, uh, would rather not think about such a device for use by consenting adults. To each his/her own they say.

  14. Hope, mystery, gullibility, difficult to substantiate general claims when combined with the placebo effect makes a powerful combination. When people believe, even with a placebo being used, some will get better. Wish fulfillment is a difficult dynamic to get past to demonstrate falsehoods. Belief that it will be successful has a way of generating enough positive outcomes to allow the snake oil salesperson to make a killing. Conversely when a person gives up hope, the negative will tend to happen more often than not.

  15. The thing that I’ve been seeing recently that trips the BS meter are those drinks that supposedly help restore cartilage between joints with glucosamine. Whether or not they actually work, the idea just seems ridiculous.

  16. The challenge always with placebo effects is not proving that the result of something (yogurt, prayer, crystals, etc) is just placebo but that it’s possible. The issue is, as always, an overly biased slant to the hypothesis that something works which then needs only the slightest shred of evidence to support that hypothesis. Making people accept that it’s at least as possible to believe the results are wish fulfillment as it is to believe they are from the thing in question is tough.

    I have my doubts about those cartilage things as well, but my biggest product of doubt is probably HeadOn.

  17. Two May’s ago I had a BP spike which caused a stroke and vein occlusion in my right eye which blinded it for several months. The ophthalmologist told me I had about five percent chance of recovering the vision in that eye, and he’d never seen such a thing.

    By November I got my sight back, mainly because I kept it covered, heal fairly quickly, and had a whacking great slice of luck. My doctor actually had some colleagues in to look at it along with the pictures that had been taken at the onset. In eighty combined years of practice they’d never seen a complete recovery, even with apparent tissue death on the cornea.

    Several people I know tell me that I recovered because they prayed for me. It’s a miracle, that’s all there is to it, and here I’m still an atheist and ungrateful to the Author of my Grace.

    I almost hate to point out to them that two of the ladies are undergoing treatment for cancer which doesn’t seem to be listening for instructions to leave them by command of the deity they’ve been petitioning.

  18. Clearly god sees more value in the continued sight of an atheist over the continued existence of a couple of church ladies. He works in mysterious ways…

  19. my favorite is “anal leakage”

    Careful Philly. Someone’s going to come by, take this out of context and either lie, bullshit or spin it to everyone else that you are a big fan of “anal leakage”.

    “EXTRA. EXTRA. Read all about it. Phillychief is no longer full of shit!”

  20. Very nice.

  21. Yeah, you’re right about the one-two punch of failing education and religious revival.

    Still, some snake oil salesmen start off by making outrageous scientific claims for their products …

    but, when the bad science is exposed, the stuff still winds up being pretty fucking Gr-r-r-r-r-reat.

    (And enough bowls of it will keep you regular, too.)

  22. I may have mentioned it before, but I DID, in fact, benefit from prayer once. I may have mentioned it before, but here goes.

    I have a cousin who I am very close to, he is a life-long atheist and has been married to a practicing methodist preacher for forty years. She “got the call” two years into their marriage, and they are the closest friends my wife and I have. She’s sixty two and can STILL wow guys with her looks. They live in Roanoke.

    We were visiting and this bleeding thing started up on that trip. We were eating dinner and I noticed everyone staring at me in horror. This is usually because I have said something untoward, but then it was hard to see because I was bleeding from under my eyelids, and this added to the mess from my mouth and nose.

    They took me to the local VA where I was put in one of those cubilce thingees and then went away to try to figure out what to do and even if they should give me fluids, and so I was left all alone in there with towels and a biohazzard bin.

    No one told my wife or cousins what was going on and they were ignored until my Rev’d cuz identified herself as a clergy person and was the person with whom my wife and I dealt. She asked if she could come into the cubicle with me, and by the way, she was going to bring my wife since it didn’t look good. She was told, fine.

    They came in, sat down, each took a hand, and she said, “Would you mind if we prayed?”
    I said, “Do you HAVE to?”

    She said no, they didn’t, but they were scared, worried, and didn’t know what was happening, so they’d probably wind up screaming at me like a couple of harpies.

    As any man with an ounce of prudence would do, I said, “Well, if it’ll make you feel better…”

    So, it served as a distraction in my favor.

  23. I accidentally bought some cheese once that was supposed to help with my digestion. It tasted like chalk and smelled like baby puke. Which is exactly what I did after I ate some. So, I guess in a strange way it did help. No digestion needed.

  24. Kellog was an oddball but that cereal thing actually is pretty good for you, well maybe not if you cover it with all that sugar. Still, Kellog’s flakes were something new, or almost new, the market wasn’t already flooded with them and he wasn’t trying to sell his over the others by saying they contained magic, or bacteria, or fairies or something. Oh, and he didn’t claim his shit was clinically proven to do anything did he?

    That sounds like nasty cheese, Babs. I’d go with Tums instead.

    Hey Sarge, what was it that caused the bleeding? An in-law recently had what sounds like the same experience you describe with the bleeding from everywhere. He’s undergoing tests, because no one has a clue what’s going on.

  25. Well, I’m glad you asked about Kellogg’s claims, Philly, because I fucked up the link on the last comment. If you click on this one, you’ll see that he thought corn flakes were the perfect anaphrodisiac for the patients at his Sanitarium.

    So, technically, the original logo should have been : Tony the non-Tiger.

    For lowering your sex drive, they’re Gr-r-r-r-r- … oh, never mind.

  26. OK, decent post. However, to make any sort of claims like ‘clinically proven’, or ‘significant’, there *has* to be high-quality clinical trials that have been done. If you search around, you can find them. I found four that investigate in particular the probiotic strain found in Activia.

    They are all published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and all claim to reduce ‘colon transit time’ significantly. If you read the papers, it appears that it does this. Of course, this doesn’t work for everybody. Nothing does. But clinical trials use a process called ‘randomization’, which along with ‘blinding’, can help make sure that these results are not due to chance or bias.

    The *average* response is what clinical trials are powered to detect a difference in. I agree anecdotal evidence is meaningless, but these trials are not. These trials show exactly what they are tested to show, not more, not less. They show specifically that, “Colonic transit times are shortened when ingesting Activia vs. placebo for 10 days (study-dependent).

    Now, the real question is:
    Does the *specific claim* made in the commercials match up with what these trials clinically proved?

    That is what the courts have to decide.


    Bouvier M, et al. “Effects of consumption of a milk fermented by the probiotic
    Bifidobacterium animalis DN-173 010 on colonic transit time in healthy humans.” Bioscience and Microflora, 2001; Vol 20(2): 43-48.

    Marteau P, et al. “Bifidobacterium animalis, strain DN-173 010 shortens the colonic transit time in healthy women.
    A double-blind randomised controlled study.” Aliment Pharmacol Ther, 2002; 16: 587-593.

    Méance S, et al. “A fermented milk with Bifidobacterium probiotic strain DN-173 010 shortened oro-fecal gut transit time in elderly.” Microb Ecology Health Dis,
    2001; 13: 217-222.

    Méance S, et al. “Recent advance in the use of functional foods: Effect of the commercial fermented milk with Bifidobacterium animalis strain DN-173 010 and yogurt strains on gut transit time in the elderly.” Microb Ecology Health
    Dis, 2003; 15: 15-22.

  27. P.S I should have mentioned that *all* four of these trials are placebo controlled. This means that half the patients got Activia, and half got something that looked/tasted like Activia, but was not. This *accounts* for the placebo effect and is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY for a clinical trial. These trials were performed with placebo controls, and both patients and investigators remained ignorant about which one the patient was receiving.

    If the product really works, you will see benefit BEYOND what the placebo group does. You test the difference with simple statistical methods (e.g. t-tests, ANOVA, regression, or Cox models).

  28. I guess it’s good I didn’t turn off anonymous posting.

  29. Anonymous:
    Thanks for the references and the information about the testing of this stuff.

    You said: and all claim to reduce ‘colon transit time’ significantly. Did any of the references quantify “significantly” meant? As you know, the term “significant” in isolation is meaningless. Readers (and researchers) need concrete reference points in order to evaluate the claims.

  30. Anonymous:
    I wasn’t trying to be snarky in the previous comment. I know you were summarizing stuff and just wondered if you knew any more about the basis for the claim.


  31. I’ve never had an anonymous post at mine. Usually, someone types their name in. But then, WordPress doesn’t give that option either.

  32. Hello. Well it looks like in most of these trials, they noticed about a 20% reduction in this so-called ‘colon transit time’. I haven’t really read deeply enough to know what that is actually measuring, nor is this my area of study. (I am a statistician.) This brings me to your question, what is meant by the term ‘significant’. When that word is used in this sense, it means ‘statistically significant’, which usually simply means the study showed that the averages were different between the two groups. With enough people in a study, you could reach statistical significance with a very small difference between the means, but that might not be very important. So, by itself, ie not in context, ‘significance’ simply means ‘we found a difference between the two groups that was *probably* not due to chance.’

    Usually, most studies allow a 5% chance of finding a difference where none really exists, which is why you often hear of 95% confidence intervals and ‘p-values’ of .05 or less being ‘significant’. In this case, it appears these p-values are very much lower than .05, so the conclusions are highly supported. It’s simply a matter of what this ‘colon transit time’ business actually *means* to a doctor and the FDA, and if that allows them to make the claims they did in the commercial. I don’t know the answer to that. My point is simply that there is *some* scientific attempt to validate what they said. Whether it’s any good or not is for courts to decide.

    This is not equivocal to claiming prayer works though IMO :) . There is absolutely no evidence from any trials for that.

    BTW, I’m not trying to remain anonymous, just don’t care to create an account. I do not work for Dannon or anyone affiliated with this. I do work in the clinical trials field, but not for foods.

  33. Thanks for the schoolin’. ;)

    I never studied the field of statistics. I’m quite amazed at the difference between layman and pro use of “significant”. Sort of like “theory” between layman and scientific usage.

  34. Philly, chappy, SI, Sarge:

    Are any of you going to research Anonymous’s claims? The science is way over my head. Maybe Evo would like to plow through those papers for us.

    Anyway, I actually googled m. bouvier effects of consumption. Within the first ten results, I found out that there really is such a thing as the National Yogurt Association (which I now know not to make up) and also that Dannon has a Probiotics Center.

    In any case, based on my cursory skimming of the abstract of the bouvier et al. paper, the “regularis” strain doesn’t seem to appear anywhere by name in that study. The researchers wrote about: Bifidobacterium animalis DN-173010 fermented milk. Now, perhaps the “DN” stands for “Dannon.” If so, it’s fair for the company to call a new strain of bifidobacterium whatever it wants to. But if the DN does, in fact, stand for “Dannon,” did the company itself fund the study?

    So I’m wondering if Anonymous is on the Dannon payroll, hired to cruise the blogosphere and respond to yogurt sniping posts like this one.

  35. Anonymous (and Philly, too) both posted their comments above while I was writing mine. So, for the time being, I retract my final paragraph.

  36. No I haven’t checked the reports yet, but then I also didn’t say I accepted what he said from them, did I? I thanked him for the info and the schoolin’ on statistics.

    I did search Bifidobacterium animalis and found something that said Dannon had patented (which sounds weird to me) a subspecies of it which they’re calling regularis. So can the test results be also true of the subspecies without needing new tests? I don’t know. I’m not a biologist. Perhaps that’s another issue for the court.

  37. Certainly “anonymous” gives a clearly articulated view of what “a” scientific study sets out to achieve and the methods for doing it. I won’t research his cites, but I expect they are legit.

    But this brings us to the part of Ex’s comment in which he correctly insinuates that “not all scientific studies are equal”. What is more important than the results of any given study (because of EXACTLY the problems Ex indicated) is the level of scientific consensus reached from ALL studies.

    As to what “anonymous” inner motivations may be, we will probably never know. I only point out that it is interesting that she shows up here to pass on an extensive amount of information – yet doesn’t feel like taking the time to set up an account. Which would probably take less time the the first two paragraphs of the first post. As anyone doing the work that “anonymous” claims to do must know, the less “anonymous” the better.

  38. Anon again. To be clear, I have no idea about the biology of any of this, and have never heard of probiotics before today. I just happened upon this blog which I will probably be reading regularly now. It’s nice to find a place with actual discussion and not just flames. :)

    And to reiterate, I definitely don’t work for Dannon (?) and don’t know if their trials were run well. I haven’t even read the papers in depth, I just found them and read the abstracts and conclusions. So I’m not saying I accept them either.

    I work for a large research university in the Midwest of the US.

  39. No flames as of yet. No verified troll sightings either so far. What you will find, as you’ve found so far, is strong skepticism and frank speech. Welcome aboard from wherever and however you got here.

    Other sites I have links to aren’t too shabby either. ;)

  40. Anon – just to follow up on Philly’s comment, what you will find at his blog (largely) is a group of people who are (if I may brag) pretty intelligent, not of scientific backgrounds but usually very interested from a layman’s perspective, and definitely skeptical rationalists. We call each other on problems in our logic (without flaming) and we’ll certainly call visitors.

    Like I said, I have no problem, on the surface, with anything you said. I do think, if you find this a nice place to stop by for an occasional chat, that you should create an online identity which would at least allow us to identify you as being different from the 900,000 other anonymous commenters.

  41. Anonymous:
    Thanks for two things. First, the refresher on “statistical significance.” I took stats a long time ago, so it was nice to have a succinct summary.

    Second, this statement: “they noticed about a 20% reduction in this so-called ‘colon transit time’.” This information gets to the heart of what I wanted to know. As a consumer, I’m more interested in functional significance than in statistical significance. I want to know what difference a product will make in my life under actual conditions. 20% (assuming I know the range of the scale under consideration) gives me something more familiar to consider than p < 0.05.

    Again, thanks for the clarification.

  42. They don’t know what causes this bleeding thing, and being the VA they rather quickly backed off the one doc’s statement that it may have been caused by some chemical exposure or medication snafu.

    What happens is that the capillaries in mucous membranes and subcutanious areas where there’s pressure (like wearing a hat, once) break down and it seems to spread. It largely takes place under my eyelids, in my nose and mouth, and in some of my internal organs. They are worried about the brain (already injured) or lungs, but so far so good there.

    They really don’t know what to do about it but hope it stops beforesI bleed out. Clotting agents or fluids could actually make things worse.

    On the other hand, it’s been good for a laugh a time or two.

    Last fall it happened and I was sitting waiting to go into the Emergency room here at our local VA and some poor Polish lady saw me sitting there, a big band of a bruise across my forehead, blood all over my hands, blood coming from my eyes.

    She lets out a screech, whips a rosary out of her purse, says it’s the stigmata and here she’s actually seeing it. I’ve been touched by god, and holy.

    Wife looks at her and says, “HIM!!??” and starts to laugh even though she’s very worried.

    One of the staff, who I’ve known for years told the lady she was half right, I WAS touched, he’d known it for years, but not necessarily by any deity.

    I resented that statement, told him so. He asked if I denied it, I said of course not, I just resented it.

  43. Thanks for the explanation Sarge, and also the stories. :)

  44. Sarge, One of the staff, who I’ve known for years told the lady she was half right, I WAS touched

    If he needs witnesses, there are a number here in the Atheosphere…

    I join you in your resentment of that fact. And I too can’t deny it!

  45. Yeah, John Evvo, ya gotta say “fair do’s”.

    There’s a whole LOT of things said about me that I resent but can’t in honesty, deny. Life sucks that way.

  46. I hear ya, brother.

  47. Every spoonful of the most expensive yogurt in the world is better food than Mc D junk!

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