The XX Factor

The Activia Challenge Fails Miserably

Apparently, the “Activia Challenge” does not count as scientific evidence. Dannon has agreed to stop pitching its probiotic-laced yogurt as a solution to “occasional irregularity,” aka constipation, after the FTC alleged that the claim was misleading. Now Dannon has to pay out $21 million in settlements with state and federal regulators and overhaul its advertising campaign. (That’s probably about what Dannon has had to pay Jamie Lee Curtis to discuss colon performance in ad after ad .) Dannon’s not only in trouble because of its claims surrounding “digestive irregularity”: The FTC also faulted it for telling consumers that the yogurt drink DanActive could help prevent colds. DanActive’s and Activia’s supposed health benefits were derived from probiotics. Probiotic cheerleaders-many of whom profit from sales of the “natural health wonder”-also like to say that the microorganisms can help treat or prevent conditions like bad breath, yeast infections, eczema, even cancer.

Dannon’s reaction to the settlement is quite telling. In a statement, the company said, “Millions of people firmly believe in, benefit from and enjoy these products, and Dannon will continue to research, educate and communicate about the benefits of probiotics on the digestive and immune systems.” It’s the “believe in” that Dannon emphasizes-and that is most troubling. If Activia doesn’t do what it claims, then does it really matter whether people “believe in” it? When it comes to health, we often cling to beliefs at the expense of evidence, as demonstrated by the appalling amounts of money spent each flu season on ineffective “supplements” like Airborne and homeopathic remedies.

Dannon’s Activia pitch depended heavily on the two-week “Activia challenge,” during which people were supposed to eat the yogurt daily and try to detect changes in digestion. But more productive trips to the bathroom during those two weeks could hardly prove that Activia was doing what it was supposed to do. Constipation can and does spontaneously stop. And, as the FTC/Dannon agreement notes, for the minor benefits of probiotics for treatment of constipation, people would have to consume three servings of Activia per day . That’s a whole lot of yogurt-and presumably most of the folks who reported positive results from the Activia Challenge weren’t eating nearly that much.

The best lesson of the Dannon debacle is that testimonials don’t equal efficacy. Personal experience doesn’t even demonstrate efficacy, since we don’t control for other factors, like fiber intake in the case of Activia or exposure to germs in the case of DanActive. Better “digestive health” while eating Activia doesn’t necessarily mean that Activia did squat. And not developing a cold while drinking DanActive doesn’t mean anything, either. Sorry, Jamie Lee Curtis, but I just don’t believe you anymore.