by Hannah McKenna, WHF Intern
I am a huge fan of commercials. They might interrupt my nightly yelling at the TV during Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy, but I don’t mind one bit. It could be because my commercial-viewing experience is a highly enjoyable and interactive one. I sing along to all of the jingles, dance to the background music, and even act out the commercials with voices and wild gesturing (why am I so cool?). Even the worst commercials can be made bearable with some over-the-top imitation (i.e. “Where’s that money coming from, Steve?”), but not this one. Maybe it’s because I love weddings almost as much as I love commercials. Maybe it’s because this advertisement manages to suck all the joy out of the “five dollar footlong” jingle I just sang. Whatever the reason, I hate this fifteen second atrocity.
Cut to a woman holding a microphone in one hand and clutching a box of Phillips Colon Health in the other. This must be her go-to brand of probiotic capsules and she wastes no time in enthusiastically singing its praises. Wait… is that a wedding cake behind her? Is this woman at a wedding? And as if to confirm our suspicions, the shot widens to reveal an elegant outdoor wedding reception.
Judging by the dusky lavender dress and the fact that she’s seated next to the bride, we presume Probiotics Lady to be the maid of honor. My first impulse is to see how the bride is reacting to this unorthodox speech. Although she seems skeptical at first, in a few seconds, she’s on board. In fact, just about every wedding guest has been won over, including an incredibly expressive wedding guest who smiles as if to say, “Yes! I believe!” Who is this woman? Why is she treated to a close-up not once, but twice? The world will never know...
It’s not that I object to probiotics. I actually take probiotic capsules daily (not the Phillips Colon Health ones, obviously). No. It’s the fact that they’re being discussed at somebody’s wedding, a day that celebrates the joining of two lives, not one’s victory over constipation and diarrhea. Whatever happened to discussing these matters with your closest gal pals (including the one who is a doctor) à la Yaz? The way I see it, there are only three reasons why a speech like this could ever be considered acceptable at a wedding: 1) Phillips Colon Health is somehow sponsoring the elegant affair, 2) the bride and groom share a passion for digestive health. They first locked eyes at Walgreen’s when their hands touched as they both reached for the Phillips capsules. Fireworks! Crashing waves! Flowers blooming in fast motion! From that moment on, it was nothing but regular sailing, or 3) probiotics are so wonderful that it is impossible to contain yourself (even at a wedding).
In the interest of absolving the maid of honor of her crime, let’s consider the validity of the third reason. The hype surrounding probiotic capsules is much like the one we witnessed when yogurt fortified with probiotics (e.g. Activia) was introduced to the world. Not only did yogurt have the capacity to taste so good that it was liberating, it also claimed to help regulate your digestive system. Other companies quickly followed suit when they realized the market potential and suddenly, buying the right kind of yogurt became a lot more complicated than it used to be. But is the probiotic frenzy justified? And before we can even get to that, what are probiotics?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), probiotics are defined as live microorganisms (i.e. bacteria, viruses, yeast) which, when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host. We, the so-called hosts, are chock full of our own microorganisms. Among them are “good” or “friendly” bacteria which help develop our immune system, defend against disease-causing microorganisms, and aid in the digestion and absorption of food and nutrients. Yet, each person’s mix of bacteria is prone to factors which may throw it off balance. “Hostile” microorganisms that cause disease (hello, H. pylori) can overwhelm the friendly parts of your bacterial cocktail. And antibiotics that mean well can also kill the friendly bacteria in your gut along with the “doesn’t play well with others” bacteria they initially targeted.
Enter, stage left, probiotics. With bacteria similar to those found in our bodies, probiotics are believed to help restore and maintain our intestinal microbial balance as well as aid the part of the digestive tract linked to our immune system’s defenses – only a few of the many health benefits probiotics are thought to confer. Though the positive effects of probiotics have been researched since the beginning of the 20th century, probiotics in foods can be traced back to ancient times, found in breast milk, fermented foods, and cultured milk products. These days, its reach has extended to everything from energy bars to cereals as well as capsules, tablets and powders (probiotics in freeze-dried form). But should we take the ubiquity of probiotics to mean that they are indeed effective?
Although laboratory studies have demonstrated the health benefits of probiotics, it’s difficult to say how this research translates to the probiotic-fortified foods and dietary supplements found in stores. It is unknown whether the treatment of probiotics or its addition to food affects the quality, quantity or therapeutic effects of the helpful bacterial strains involved. Most critics question whether these products contain helpful bacteria in the “adequate amounts” to which the WHO definition of probiotics refers. Often, the bacteria found in probiotics come from two groups, Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium, each with many different strains respectively. Yet, even the notion of which strains of bacteria are most effective or relate to particular health benefits remains to be further researched. With the increasing number of probiotics products hitting grocery and drugstore shelves as well as those boasting three or more strains of friendly bacteria, assessing the efficacy of these various products has become a daunting task.
Until more conclusive research surfaces, it looks as though our maid of honor in question will just have to be more careful about where she sets down her soapbox. Don’t worry; it’s not all bad for her. If you stick around until the end of the commercial, you’ll notice the smitten groomsman who leans over and whispers, “You had me at probiotics.” Yes, this pick-up line is the odd love child of probiotics and a Jerry Maguire line oft heard on a bad date. But if the maid of honor is kind enough to ignore that, it could be the start of a beautiful romance for the two of them. Then, her future maid of honor will have a legitimate reason to talk about probiotics in her speech.
Of course, you don’t have to rely on probiotics alone to be healthy. Get involved in the Healthiest State Campaign or learn more about our Personal Health Advocates to take charge of your health without spending hours in front of the yogurt section. Enjoy a walk in the crisp autumn weather and log your miles in the Health Bowl. So many choices, and none of them involve the danger of embarrassing yourself at a wedding.
Hannah McKenna is an aspiring commercial “reenactress”. Her best work to date has been the reenactment of a classic Stanley Steemer commercial in which she takes on the complex role of the infuriated mother. She would like to note that neither she nor the Washington Health Foundation is affiliated with any of the products mentioned above, and do not endorse or discourage their use.