As scientists expand their understanding of how probiotics benefit gut health and digestion, the market for these products is expanding. While it is exciting to see the benefits that probiotics deliver being embraced by an increasing majority, not all probiotic supplements are created equal, and some manufacturers are making misleading claims that sound good on paper, but result in a less effective product with reduced benefit to the consumer.
Some probiotic products claim to be “shelf stable,” the USDA states that shelf stable products are those that are safely stored at room temperature and do not require refrigeration. Room temperature is generally accepted to be between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
Conflicting Storage Instructions
If you look carefully, you will find that storage instructions on supposed shelf stable probiotics make contradictory statements. The storage instructions on one probiotic brand state that, while the product is shelf stable, “refrigeration will extend shelf life” and cautions the consumer to “avoid temperatures above 77 degrees Fahrenheit”. Another brand states that their product is sealed in a blister pack that protects the probiotics from moisture and oxygen making it safe for storage at room temperature but cautions that, “while refrigeration is not required, it is helpful particularly during summer months”. These products both highlight that no refrigeration is required as a selling point of their product but their care instructions, that are often found in small print or hidden on their websites, acknowledge recommended refrigeration.
In addition, consumers should be aware that a product considered shelf-stable will be transported along with all other non-perishable goods. There is no such thing as regulated ‘room temperature’ during transportation. This transportation time may include long periods sitting on loading docks or at truck depots for hours, often in the heat of the sun.
The Importance Of Refrigeration
Why is refrigeration important to probiotic health? Probiotics are living microorganisms that can easily die when exposed to heat or moisture. Refrigeration slows their metabolism requiring less food and slowing reproduction. It’s for the same reason we put perishable food in the fridge and not in our pantry; lower temperatures of refrigeration slow bacterial growth.
Fluctuations in temperature, both hot and cold, also affect the water content within the product, which could reactive the bacteria. If the bacteria become reactivated inside a closed container (ie. capsules, bottles, etc.) they will quickly run out of nutrients to live and eventually die off.
Temperature Controlled Delivery
It is also important for you, the consumer, to be aware of how your probiotics are shipped. After a shipping mishap, Popular Mechanics launched an investigation into how packages shipped by FedEx, UPS and USPS are handled.Their results found that, among other things, all three shipping companies reached a temperature above 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Shipping via food trucks fares even worse. These shipments are being held to standards written in over nine years ago that are in desperate need of being updatedIn addition, there is growing concern that the FDA does not provide proper resources to enforce even these outdated regulations. Even in October, a cooler month of the year, Indiana State Police stopped a food truck and found that the supposedly refrigerated trucks had a cargo temperature nearly thirty degrees above the state and federal regulations. And to further this point, Triple AAA reported that even on a moderately sunny day the temperature inside a car can rise twenty degrees in just ten minutes. Many consumers believe that if they purchased a dry good, off of the shelf, that they can also leave it in their car while they run errands, but if car temperatures can rise so quickly, then tossing that supposedly ‘shelf-stable’ probiotic into your car trunk while you run into the bank can expose it to damaging temperatures (if it wasn’t damaged already on its way to the store).
The Science Is Clear – Temperature Matters
As an informed consumer, it is important to find a product that is manufactured, stored and shipped under strict temperature control. In 2009, ConsumerLab reported that 85% of the probiotics tested did not contain the amount of organisms claimed on the label. It is easy to be lured by the convenience of supposed shelf stable products that claim not to require refrigeration, but you need to be aware of how temperature fluctuations can impact the health of living probiotic bacteria.
One of the key elements that we pride ourselves on at Natren is our focus on the science behind probiotics. The fact is that at higher temperatures, bacteria will grow too quickly and will be dead by the time you consume them. That is why we ship all our probiotics in climate-controlled packaging, and state clearly on the label that the product should be kept refrigerated. Doing anything less is simply a waste of money and unfortunately the government isn’t regulating these shelf-stability claims to protect the consumer. At Natren we voluntarily subject ourselves to third-party testing which gives us the confidence to guarantee our probiotics through the expiration date.