Many Probiotics Contain Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria. Plus: Number of Live Bacteria is up to 95% Below Label Claims

Probiotics under urgently needed scrutiny - This is the first study to test for antibiotic resistances and to highlight the discrepan- cy between label claims and the actual number of live bacteria in supplements.
There have been plenty of good news about probiotic supplements in the news (including the SuppVersity News), lately. One thing that is often forgotten, though, is that the effect of the supplements depends on (a) the exact type of bacteria that are in the pills, (b) the ratio of the different strains and (c) the number of bacteria that are still alive.

Unfortunately, this important truth is rarely mentioned in the edutainment articles on probiotics in the laypress and sales pitches you will find all over the Internet.

Another thing, even you may not have thought about yet is however the potential occurrence of antibiotic resistances among the bazillions of bacteria in your allegedly healthy probiotic supplements.
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A group of people who thought of this hitherto overlooked problem are researchers from the  King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and the UCSI University in Malaysia (Wong. 2015). In their recent paper in the scientific journal Nutrition Journal, the international group of researchers are the first to highlight a previously ignored problem i.e. the possibility that certain genes that make bacteria resistant to antibiotics "could transfer to pathogens sharing the same intestinal habitat" - an event that is, as the scientists rightly point out, "conceivable considering the fact that dietary supplements contain high amounts of often heterogeneous populations of probiotics" and could thus "confer pathogens protection against commonly-used drugs" (Wong. 2015).

MRSA in your probiotic supplements? 

Against that background and in view of the numerous reports of antibiotic resistant probiotics in food and biological sources, the antibiogram of probiotics from dietary supplements remains elusive.
Figure 1: Petri dishes from the antibiotic test (top). If the antibiotics still worked on the bacteria in the probiotics, they all should be dead. As you can see (in the graph, as well), that's by no means the case (Wong. 2015).
In fact, Wong et al. are apparently the first researchers to screen five commercially available dietary supplements (the full names were not disclosed) for resistance towards antibiotics of different classes - with somewhat disconcerting results, namely:
  • Even probiotics that help weight loss, could transfer antibiotic resistances.
    Probiotics of all batches of products were resistant towards vancomycin.
  • Several batches of probiotics from four different brands were also resistant towards streptomycin, aztreonam, gentamycin and / or ciprofloxacin antibiotics (this includes the US and Austrian products, i.e. Cn and Bn, respectively)
  • The fifth brand showed a unique resistance towards gentamycin, strepto- mycin and ciprofloxacin antibiotics. 
Now, as previously pointed out, this does not mean that "bad" bacteria which will always be present in your gut, will automatically acquire the same resistances, but the mere fact that it is possible should tell you that the current hype over probiotics as the "go-to supplement" everyone should take is unwarranted, or at least premature.

You're not getting what you're paying for!

The problem with antibiotic resistances is yet not the only intriguing result of Wang's study. The researchers analyses also revealed that you're not just getting more (albeit unwanted) ingredients that you're paying for, they also found a significant discrepancy between the enumerated viable bacteria amounts and the claims of the manufacturers.
Figure 2: Non-strain specific essay that evaluated the number of live bacteria in the products. The products from producers Bi, Bg, and L didn't just contain significantly less living bacteria than the manufacturers claim, the number is even so low that it is absolutely certain that they are 100% useless. The good news may be that the low dose supplements from the Austria(BN) and USA (CN) contained either more or at least roughly the amount of bacteria on the label (Wong. 2015).
In other words, while the scientists claim that you would get more than enough viable bacteria from their product to have a significant impact on your intestinal microbiome, the reality is that many of the good bacteria are dead before you even open the package.
The "live bacteria"-problem can be solved by eating probiotic foods like yogurt. The problem with potential antibiotic resistances, on the other hand, is rampant with foods, too. Even meat (especially chicken) and allegedly extra-healthy products like veggies from the farmers market may be tainted (the latter due to natural fertilizers of animal origin aka slurry).
Bottom line: The transfer of genes that could make bad gut bugs resistant to antibiotic is only a possibility, but it's one with literally fatal consequences. If bacterial strains in your gut have become resistant to antibiotics and you end up - for whatever reason - with an infection, i.e. a rapid multiplication of these bacteria, you could probably find yourself in the emergency room ... or worse.

In conjunction with the proven lack of viable bacteria in the five products from the US, Malaysia and Austria this study casts a shadow on a class of supplements with rapidly increasing sales - a shadow that becomes even darker if you remember my previous warning that we know literally nothing about the far-reaching interactions between the billion of different bacteria in our gut to even know the "good" from the "bad" guys | Comment on Facebook!
  • Wong, Aloysius, et al. "Detection of antibiotic resistance in probiotics of dietary supplements." Nutrition journal 14.1 (2015): 1-6.
Disclaimer:The information provided on this website is for informational purposes only. It is by no means intended as professional medical advice. Do not use any of the agents or freely available dietary supplements mentioned on this website without further consultation with your medical practitioner.