Friday, April 04, 2008

A Skeptical Look at Yogurt

This is now a medical blog.

I hate yogurt commercials. I'm not a big fan of yogurt itself either, aside from it being one of the funniest-sounding words in the English language. Yet, the other day, I went to pick up some groceries, I was really hungry, I wanted something healthy, and I was in a hurry, so some sort of implicit association kicked in and I got some Activia yogurt.

There are a bunch of buzz words with yogurt like Activa that they blab about in the commercials, calling it pre-biotic, pro-biotic, mo' biotic, whatever. I decided to look into what this actually means.

The horrible commercials clearly imply that eating this bacteria-infested yogurt will help you lose weight. In one of them, two people are sitting down in workout clothing talking about yogurt. One of them has sciency-looking animations orbiting around her skinny belly. As if sitting there eating yogurt is the equivalent of a full workout, infusing science into your belly and melting away fat. The commercial asks you to take the "14 day challenge" (*). What are you challenged to do? Well, buy lots of yogurt and chow down for 2 weeks, of course!

Let's go to their web site to see how they back up their claims. Ahh, ok, so probiotic cultures are literally little living organisms that survive in your gut after you swallow them. Gross...but I guess we always have living beasties in there anyway. But how do the magical health benefits work? Oh, here we go:

Oookay. So it works by, um, working. Then something about balance.

Oh look! A hot chick in a lab coat! Perhaps she can tell us more.

Ok, so we need some of these bacteria. Of course, it doesn't actually say that eating this yogurt is the only source of them. Or a good source. The leap to eating it every single day might be a bit of a stretch.

But what do they actually do? Does having lots of these bugs in your gut help you lose weight like the ads imply? Let's go to the section devoted to information on probiotic cultures. Oh, look, they link to an external web site all about them - - to learn more. A third party must be a legitimate source of information, since they won't fabricate hard scientific data just to sell more yogurt.

Now, I'm not making this up; here is the sole source of information on

Seriously. The only working link is "watch." If you do, it's a disturbing video with smiling animated bacteria worming their way around the human digestive system.

Here they are packing their bags and leaving out of someone's anus, along with a giant turd. Again, I'm not making this up.

Oh, and look who owns that web site. Danone. Makers of Activia. So it's basically the world's most disturbing propaganda video.

Back to Danone's main site. Here is what they claim the point of eating Activia is:

Why is Activia® yogurt such a great choice?

* It is the only yogurt to contain unique BL RegularisTM specifically selected by Danone researchers.
* BL RegularisTM is scientifically proven and clinically tested to survive passage through the digestive system, arriving into the large intestine as a live culture that stays active.
* Activia® can truly be called a "yogurt with an active probiotic culture" because of the unique, additional friendly bacteria it contains: BL RegularisTM.
* It tastes great - consumers ranked Activia® highest among yogurts for flavour and creaminess in Danone taste tests! (Source: Cintech, July 2003)
* It is available in twelve delicious flavours.

To sum up: It tastes good, and it puts living organisms in your belly. Hey, neat, but I could replace "BL RegularisTM" with "dirt", and it really wouldn't be any more or less convincing. Wow, it's the only yogurt with dirt, it maintains its pebbly nature in the digestive system, and tastes great! Uh, so what?

There's still no mention of weight loss here. No mention of any benefits at all.

Let's just go to the "Scientific Proof" section. Finally, we get to a small handful of actual scientific studies done on this stuff. The main conclusion? It helps old people and people with intestinal problems have reduced "intestinal travel time." In other words, if you have trouble shitting regularly, it will help you shit.

Nothing about weight loss. And more importantly, regarding normal people, I quote, "In subjects with a normal transit time, no marked change or risk of diarrhea was observed." Note: no marked change.

The bottom line is, unless you are having bowel problems, it won't do anything. If you are, it might make you more regular. And it probably won't give you diarrhea.

I guess all the stupidness of the commercials and the vague claims on the web site make sense now. They were dancing around the fact that all these fancy words really don't mean much. And "it probably won't give you diarrhea" wasn't a very catchy slogan.

Perhaps I'm being too hard on this stuff. It actually does taste pretty good, and even if it has no special benefits, all yogurts are healthy low-calorie foods in general. But I see no reason to go out of my way to get yogurt specifically because it has probiotic cultures in it, nor to pay more for it. Also, it is downright deceptive to clearly imply that the stuff helps with weight loss, when no such benefit has been demonstrated. Danone can take their bacteria and shove them back up their extremely regular asses.


(*) Of course, the yogurt expires before the 14 days are up, so you gotta have more than one per day, share some, or waste some and buy another pack in 10 days.

Oh, but if you need help with the challenge, there's another web site for that:

Jesus Christ! Do we really need a support group to eat a cup of yogurt?


SharkBoy said...

thank you Dr. Phronk
This report was totally Probiotically funny and it probably won't give diarrhea

Phronk said...

I dunno...some people get diarrhea when they're really excited, as I'm sure this post is likely to make them.

Unknown said...

Nice post... and by the way, "it probably won't give you diarrhea" is a great name for a music CD -- perhaps Britney can use it.
Mr. Wisdumb

Dead Robot said...

I was hoping for diarrhea. I love pill ads that mention diarrhea. I hoot and holler like a Habs fan when I hear it in the disclaimers.

Jason said...

One of their flavors is prune. I've tried it. Needless to say I was introduced to prune Activia from my (now deceased -- not from yoghurt -- at least i hope not) grandmother. She had glorious poos.

Unknown said...

If you looked at advertising, what is being advertising and how it's being advertised you'd be even more disturbed, regardless of what the product was... and if you looked at who owns the materials advertised, you would be right out disgusted.

The sheer political economy of the media is frightening

but on the lighter note.. lol.. awesome post.. entertaining and informal.. I always wondered what probiotic? meant lol

Unknown said...

p.s. the last comment is from :)

Tai said...

But it says it's recommended! I mean, it's gotta be true, if it's in print, right???

I'm glad they have a support site for eating that stuff. It actually sounds like it might be necessary.

Phronk said...

Brett: Yeah I'd totally buy a CD with that name, even if the music sucked, and even if it did give me diarrhea.

DR: Haha...those commercials are great. You could make a drinking game out of them.

Jason: I wish I could have seen them.

Ines: Ugh, yeah, I bet that could make a person pretty cynical. At least there are laws against making claims that are outright not true (though when "truth" is determined by studies, and studies are funded by the companies, even that gets a little sketchy).

Tai: I know, it must be true! There's even a person in a lab coat! How could they lie?

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the All-Bran Challenge commercials yet with John McEnroe? If you want awful poop metaphors, look no further.

jali said...

Ah see, you came to my house and now you have a stalker.

Hilarious page. I'm a new fan.

Oh - yogurt tastes like tangy bad fruit. Yucky.

Harry J. Sachz said...

Very informative observation. I've actually never heard of this stuff before I read your post, but I'll definitely be on the lookout.

Surely there are tons of soccer moms out here that devour this stuff by the truckload.

sixty-six said...

i still say fuck yogurt

Phronk said...

Bee: No, but I don't think I want to see it.

Jali: Sweet! I love fanatic stalkers. Just don't murder me please.

Sachz: Yeah, I think that's their target audience. People who want to be healthy but are too busy to research what's actually healthy and what's just bullshit. They probably wear magnetic bracelets too.

Sixty-six: Agreed. Fuck yogurt up its stupid ass.

S said...

Basically, it's laxitive yogurt.

Butchie said...

I have never eaten Activa. A buddy of mine who is always at the gym told me "You need to get your activa on." I usually buy Fage with honey. It is far superior to other yogurts.

sarah said...

These are the type of marketing tricks that I want to stay away from when I get a job in the media. It's actually pretty evil.

wiec? said...

wow! that is scary. i eat yogurt maybe 3 times a week. usually a cup of La Yogurt strawberry. never wanted to try Activia. however i like the fact that of the 4 easy steps on how activia works one of them is delicous taste! that's always how it starts when you have to add probiotic cultures to ones intestinal tracts.

that's how they get 'cha.