Tuesday, September 29, 2009

NYTimes advice on probiotics: "go to Pubmed" but ignores #openaccess issues

There was an article on probiotics in the New York Times today. By Tara Parker-Pope it addresses some important issues rarely covered in the press about probiotics (see Well - Probiotics - Looking Underneath the Yogurt Label - NYTimes.com).

On the one hand, the article does a decent job of pointing out that there is great strain to strain variation among microbes labelled as probiotics. In this regard there is a great quote by Gregor Reid:
Lactobacillus is just the bacterium,” said Gregor Reid, director of the Canadian Research and Development Center for Probiotics. “To say a product contains Lactobacillus is like saying you’re bringing George Clooney to a party. It may be the actor, or it may be an 85-year-old guy from Atlanta who just happens to be named George Clooney. With probiotics, there are strain-to-strain differences.”
Personally I think the article did a poor job of discussing one of the real complexities of probiotics (and actually any drug) in that seems to suggest that particular strains are going to be useful for certain ailments or not. In reality, the human gut is a horribly complex place, and the effectiveness of particular strains is no doubt going to depend on health status, history, other microbes being present, gender, age, genetics, and much much more. Thus it would have been good to include some more discussion of just how complex the interaction between probiotics and "health" is likely to be.

Interestingly, the article suggests:
Consumers interested in probiotics should look for products that list the specific strain on the label and offer readers easy access to scientific studies supporting the claims. A good place to find studies on various probiotic strains is the Web site www.PubMed.gov.
On the one hand, I am very happy that the Times is suggesting consumers look up information in Pubmed, a great resource. On the other hand, much of the published work on probiotics is still hidden from consumers being the veil of corporate and society publishing practices. Perhaps the Times author had access to all these articles. But the consumer right now does not. Too bad the Times missed a chance to discuss this important component of getting consumers involved in making their own health decisions.


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