Recently, I received yet another sample of a probiotic to try. According to the label, it contained “Lactobacillus sporogenes– a shelf-stable, vegan probiotic that does not require refrigeration.” But here’s the problem: There is actually no such species as Lactobacillus sporogenes. Which then leads us to question of what exactly is in all these probiotic products?

It’s important to keep in mind that Lactobacillus refers to bacteria that are capable of producing lactic acid. Hence, these bacteria are traditionally cultured in milk. Supplements containing Bacillus bacteria are NOT cultured in milk and they are derived from the soil.

Lactobacilllus bacteria do not form spores and they do not remain permanently in your gut – this is why you have to keep consuming yoghurt, kefir, etc. daily. But soil bacteria ALL form spores and these spores remain in your gut and cannot be eradicated by any means identified to date. For a full outline of the possible dangers of consuming bacterial soil organisms, see my blog post about soil organisms.

Following is an excellent summation of this issue from the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) that explains exactly what is happening and why probiotics claiming to contain Lactobacillus sporogenes may actually contain a bacterial soil organism called Bacillus coagulans, or possibly Bacillus subtilis – but really, who knows?

Personally, I strongly suspect that the companies putting out these products are operating out of ignorance. And based on my personal experience with probiotic manufacturers – most of whom are just middle-man wholesalers – I suspect that they too are ignorant of the facts. As I talked about in my Probiotics 1 Teleseminar, misinformation in the field of probiotics is vast.

Here is the article from ASM so you can be properly informed on this issue:

“Lactobacillus sporogenes” Is Not a Lactobacillus Probiotic

Microbes have proven their value in a plethora of industrial settings, including their use as probiotics, or healthpromoting microbes. Within the probiotic industry, there are those who disregard the conventions of bacterial nomenclature. Perhaps the best example of this is the use of the name “Lactobacillus sporogenes” on probiotic labels, instead of the proper nomenclature, which assigns this bacterium to the genus Bacillus (Bergey’s Manual, 1974). List of Bacterial Names with Standing in Nomenclature.

The name “Lactobacillus sporogenes” appeared in the scientific literature in 1932 (L. M. HorowitzWlassowa and N. W. Nowotelnow, Cent. F. Bak., II Abt., 87:331, 1932). However, this name was never recognized by the scientific community, and was described as a misclassification in Bergey’s Manual in 1939. The bacterium described by HorowitzWlassowa and Nowotelnow was a sporeforming bacterium, and as such could not be included as a species of Lactobacillus, which are nonsporeforming rods. This assertion was confirmed in the 5th, 6th, and 8th editions of Bergey’s Manual of Determinative Bacteriology. The 4th and 7th editions do not mention the name “Lactobacillus sporogenes,” nor does the Bergey’s Manual of Systematic Bacteriology (1986). The name is not listed on the official bacterial nomenclature list, the List of Bacterial Names with Standing in Nomenclature.

Clearly, the name “Lactobacillus sporogenes” has no scientific validity. Although there is no official classification of bacteria, the names given to bacteria are regulated through the International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria (Bacteriological Code). However, this name still appears on the labels of probiotic supplements worldwide and in a few publications of Asian journals. The implications of the persistence of this mislabeling should be considered. The most important of these is safety. Since “Lactobacillus sporogenes” is not recognized as a species, a product labeled with this name confirms nothing about its contents. It may be a Bacillus coagulans, as marketing literature from at least one company claims (Sabinsa Corp., Piscataway, N.J.), but is it prudent to make this presumption, especially with products making no assertion of correct nomenclature? If the identity of the bacterium is in question, no conclusions about its safety can be made.

Although B. coagulans is not considered pathogenic, neither is it an organism normally associated with food production (although Bacillus subtilis is used in the production of “natto,” a Japanese food), a status enjoyed by many members of the genus Lactobacillus. Presumably the products on the market are consumed without undue risk. However, no independent panel of experts has evaluated the safety of B. coagulans for human consumption as has been done for the lactobacilli. Erroneously calling this organism a lactobacillus incorrectly associates it with the same safety record as lactobacilli.

Another implication of mislabeling is related to probiotic product efficacy. Unlike probiotic species of lactobacilli, members of the genus Bacillus are not considered normal members of the intestinal flora and do persist in the mammalian gastrointestinal tract. Published literature supporting the role of Bacillus coagulans in enhancing human health is sparse, especially as compared to literature published on Lactobacillus use as probiotics. To continue to persist using this taxonomically incorrect name leads to speculation about the advantages of willingly mislabeling a product. It is likely that companies hope to benefit from association with the large aggregate of published literature and history of use on the safety and health benefits of the genus Lactobacillus. This “halo effect” would disappear if products were labeled as containing Bacillus instead of Lactobacillus.

Furthermore, a marketing advantage can be achieved by using shelfstable Bacillus spores instead of more labile Lactobacillus. The perpetuation of intentional mislabeling in the long run will serve to erode consumer confidence and undermine the credibility of the probiotic industry. Furthermore, the implications of mislabeling may have negative regulatory implications for the entire probiotic category. The FDA convened an information-gathering meeting in September 2000 on probiotics, suggesting we can expect closer regulatory scrutiny of this product category in the future (Clemens, R., Food Technol. 55:27, 2001). The industry should act to correct the issue of mislabeling before the FDA or consumer watchdog groups do it first.

– Mary Ellen Sanders Dairy and Food Culture Technologies Littleton, Colo.
– Lorenzo Morelli Instituto di Microbiologia UCSC Piacenza, Italy
– Scott Bush Rhodia Inc. Madison, Wis.

I once tried sending this information to one of the largest retailers selling a probiotic product labelled “Lactobacillus sporogenes”. Surprise, surprise, I never heard back from them, and they didn’t change their labelling or marketing materials. So once again, the burden of knowledge falls on the consumer. Until we have a sincere, functional regulatory body for supplements (i.e. not the FDA et al) these kinds of potentially-dangerous situations will continue to occur.