Give credit to the American food industry.

If there’s so much as a shred of scientific evidence that a certain ingredient might have properties that can be positioned as “healthy” or “nutritious,” or that promotes “heart health,” “weight control,” or “boosts energy levels,” you can bet that advertising and packaging will be shouting that “fact” to consumers with relentless efficiency.

One of the more prominent such maneuvers is the promotion of “probiotics,” colonies of so-called healthy bacteria occurring naturally or added as a special ingredient in a whole range of foods. Food manufacturers, and the thousands of websites that style themselves as dispensers of nutritional wisdom, now position probiotic bacteria as being responsible not just for maintaining a proper bacterial balance in the digestive tract and thus better digestive health, but for supporting cardiac health, creating better looking skin and even reducing depression.

There’s no doubt that a healthier lifestyle, something that’s easily defined but difficult to maintain, would positively impact depression — if the condition is related to poor diet, lack of exercise and sleep deprivation.

But to suggest that buying a certain brand of flavored, sugar-added yogurt would “cure” a case of chronic depression stretches the bounds of credulity.

Now, that’s not to suggest that the presence of probiotic bacteria is unimportant in maintaining proper digestion. In fact, one of the more prominent areas of nutrition research of late seems to suggest that “live, active cultures” of probiotics added to dairy products might mitigate the lactose intolerance that affects millions of people.

But it is generally not one of the causes of depression.

Of course, the vast bulk of dairy products undergo pasteurization to make sure that harmful microorganisms, as well as spoilage bacteria, are destroyed prior to consumption of the milk, yogurt or cottage cheese sold in supermarkets. And unfortunately, the pasteurizing process also kills live, active cultures of good bacteria.

Which leaves a fermented food products as the primary sources of natural probiotic bacteria, and dieticians never tire of encouraging Americans to regularly indulge in such foods as an easy, effective way to support cardiac health, create better looking skin and reduce depression.

But you already knew that.

Problem is, the foods on that list are ones most people rarely consume, such as:

·         Miso, a fermented soybean paste used to make a salty soup that’s popular in Japan.

·         Kefir, a cultured milk product that originated among nomadic tribes in the Caucasus Mountains of Europe hundreds of years ago.

·         Sourdough bread, a familiar bakery product but one that’s rarely made from a live bacterial culture.

·         Buttermilk, which if naturally fermented and unpasteurized (good luck finding that), is rich in probiotic bacteria — and was actually popular back when AM radio played the latest hit records.

The Power of Packaging
All that said, there is emerging and immensely more beneficial application for probiotics as a feed additive for livestock that might — repeat, might — allow significant reductions in the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics for both health maintenance and growth promotion.

Danish manufacturer Chr. Hansen is introducing probiotics for livestock, in an effort to reduce or eliminate the need for antibiotics in feed.

“There is a strong underlying driver from consumers and investors that wants the (meat) industry to reduce antibiotics, so there is a long-term, underlying very positive trend,” Chr. Hansen CEO Cees de Jong emphatically, if somewhat inelegantly, told Reuters.

According to the article, an investor initiative already underway is the Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return Initiative (FAIRR), an effort to persuade Yum Brands Inc., parent company of KFC, among other food-industry entities, to encourage suppliers to reduce their use of antibiotics.

De Jong told Reuters that his company would soon launch a new product for the U.S. poultry market aimed at replacing antibiotics, which, to quote him, would allow producers to “get a very healthy population of birds that grow very well, or even better, from the same amount of feed.”

In 2016, Chr. Hansen bought U.S. manufacturer Nutrition Physiology Company to expand into probiotics that can be used as alternatives to antibiotics in meat and poultry production.

But just in case that initiative isn’t impressive enough for investors, he added that, “Our technology basis is very much aligned with today’s mega-trends, where consumers … want natural solutions.”

In other words, it’s great that a biological alternative to the controversies over antibiotic use might one day provide the livestock industry with an effective tool for improved animal health and performance.

But let’s not stray too far from selling consumers on the power of a labeling claim that can be plastered on the package.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.