I like Michael Pollan‘s advice in his landmark book In Defense of Food: “Never eat anything you’ve ever seen advertised!” And is there any food more heavily advertised than Dannon’s Activia yogurt with those probiotic/prebiotic bacterial cultures that hint at (but don’t exactly promise) magical digestive benefits if we eat Activia for 14 days? Well, just as Michael Pollan warned us, it turns out that there is no scientific evidence to back up Dannon’s dubious health claims.
Last week, the European Food Safety Authority published its evaluations of over 500 foods or food components (vitamins, minerals, fibre, fat, carbohydrates, probiotic bacteria, etc). They found that two-thirds of the products evaluated – including Dannon’s Activia and DanActive yogurts – lacked scientific evidence to support their advertised health claims.
This is yet more bad news in a very bad month so far for Dannon, a subsidiary of Group Danone in France and makers of the top-selling yogurts worldwide.
Last month, a Los Angeles federal court heard that even Dannon’s own studies fail to prove that Activia has health benefits superior to any other brands of yogurt, in spite of the company’s claim that these benefits had been proven “clinically” and “scientifically”.
The L.A. court case ended when Dannon paid a $35 million settlement in a lawsuit alleging that the company had knowingly misled consumers in its Activia marketing activities.
(To put this ‘punishment’ into perspective, the settlement is just a wee bit more than the $31 million that Dannon spent on advertising Activia during just its first six months post-launch).
Their massive false advertising campaign convinced shoppers to pay up to 30% more for Dannon yogurt than for other yogurt with identical benefits. And shoppers ate it up, literally: in the first year after introducing Activia and its probiotic bacteria, sales shot up to $100 million in North America alone.
Probiotic bacteria are live bacteria that are supposed to not only help regulate your digestion, but also help improve your immune system. Dannon claimed that their yogurt helps to replenish these good bacteria to your system, thus improving your health. While the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization agrees that probiotics may have a beneficial health effect, commercial claims must be backed up by research.
The problem for Dannon is that there’s no clinical proof that the probiotic Bifidus Regularis in Activia yogurt is better at preventing disease or regulating digestion compared to the friendly bacteria in any other yogurt products.
Because consumers have been duped into believing Dannon’s false advertising claims, Activia is now the best-selling yogurt in 25 countries, accounting for over 40% of Dannon’s total sales worldwide.
And according to an article in the journal Dairy Foods, Dannon only has up to go. North Americans consume barely 7.5 pounds of yogurt per person each year, compared to 18 pounds in the U.K. and a whopping 50 pounds in France, the Netherlands, Switzerland or Denmark.
Dannon has its corporate eye on Asia now. Last month, Group Danone Chief Operating Officer Emmanuel Faber announced an Activia launch in South Korea. Monsieur Faber calls South Korea’s annual per capita yogurt consumption “quite low, offering a lot of potential”. Well, I’d say so. South Korea’s population of 49 million probiotic-deprived citizens represents an irresistible target market for Activia.
Dannon’s parent company Group Danone has plans for what it calls its high health products. Danone has been very successful with these, and in various world markets it’s optimistically introducing new yogurts claiming to lower cholesterol, regulate digestion, strengthen the immune system, help regulate blood sugar, help control hunger cravings, and even improve the vitality of skin and hair.
But the recent Los Angeles $35 million settlement requires Dannon to not only reimburse consumers, but to change its advertising messages.
February 28, 2010: Dannon has reached a settlement in a class action suit brought against it for falsely representing the health benefits of its yogurt. The company will pay up to $100 to individual consumers who have been misled by its “health claims”. Dannon must also remove the words “clinically”, “scientifically proven” and “immunity” from product labels, as well as include a qualifier to its claim that its yogurt “helps strengthen your body’s defenses” or “helps support the immune system.”
For details, read Fooducate’s report called “Yogurt Lovers Rejoice and Collect Your $100 Settlement”.
See also: “Never Eat Anything You’ve Ever Seen Advertised” in my other site, Heart Sisters.
I wonder why we’re still seeing these annoying TV commercials? Is Dannon appealing the court ruling?
Arrrgh those are THE most annoying TV commercials. Why are they still airing? Please tell me that they will soon stop so we can be spared this inane belly dancing…
This is exactly what I always thought about yogurt – and that Activia was cashing in on our ignorance of the fact that all yogurt contains healthy bacteria. Thanks for letting us all know about this. My suggestion: buy natural, unsweetned yogurt with no unpronounceable ingredients – add your own vanilla or dribbles of honey.
Paulette W – I have tried all brands of yogurt yes even plain natural no additives and I can confirm that there does seem to be a big difference with Activia I’m not sure that every other yogurt contains these probiotics that Activia has.Whatever, I will continue to purchase this because I believe it does help my digestion better than other kinds.
I use Crest toothpaste after an advert promised me that it would help ward off crocodiles. So far, no crocodiles. So Crest’s “Crocodile Prevention Formula” must work.
Enjoying reading all the “Ethical Nag” articles here, thanks.
What do you know – not only a legal fine for false advertising, but an order to actually pay Dannon consumers back for lying to them?
This explains why the new ad campaign asks “do you eat activia for its taste or for its BENEFITS?” while never actually saying what those benefits may or may not be. Smoooooooth…..
“Never eat anything you’ve ever seen advertised!”
Brilliant – love that advice. But that takes care of almost every expensive processed product in the supermarket – and leaves us with lots more fruit and veggies, lots LESS dairy, more fresh or frozen fish, nuts, whole grains, legumes, and other good things. My family was inspired by reading this to try as a one-week experiment NOT to eat anything we’ve ever seen advertised. Tough at first !! But by the end of just one week we all agreed we were each feeling so much better. Thanks for the info on Michael Pollan.
80% of your immune system is controlled by the bacterial balance of your gut flora. To be healthy and get optimum nutrient absorption from your food, you need about 80% “good” bacteria (probiotics) versus “bad.” Our balance of gut flora can be thrown off by many things… pesticides in foods, antibiotics, medical treatments, drugs, alcohol, acidic foods, etc.
Probiotics are necessary to regain a healthy balance of gut flora and have MANY, clinically proven, health benefits.
But here is the problem with ANY probiotics in foods. Probiotics are LIVE cultures. Do you know how powerful stomach acid is? The reason companies that sell PRESCRIPTION probiotics pack billions of cultures in each pill is because they know that only a fraction of a percent will survive the stomach acid and get to the lower gut where they need to be.
On top of that… probiotics need to be kept in the fridge. What happens before they get to the store if they sit in a hot warehouse or truck?
Consumer labs and another company did a study of probiotic pills… and found that over 25% had no live cultures at point of sale. 40% had some, but way less than advertised. In fact they found a range of over 10,000% difference from bottle to bottle.
Probiotics DO work… but only if you get them to your lower gut… where they live.
So… you have to look at what the delivery system is. I use one by a company that uses a Japanese technology that coats the probiotic with TWO layers of coatings that are designed to dissolve ONLY in the alkaline environment of the intestines, not the acid environment of the stomach.
They are also stable at room temperature for over 18 months. I wouldn’t leave them in a hot car, but I like being able to carry them in my purse or travel with them, if need be.
I’ve been using them and I can say that, for me, the benefits were amazing. Weight loss, better digestion and an auto-immune disease I had that was supposed to be chronic… well, haven’t seen hide nor hair of it in over a year.
If you do some research you’ll see that studies have shown benefits with probiotics with… allergies, IBS and Crohns disease, immune support, cancer prevention, autoimmune conditions like Lupus, Cystic Fibrosis and any condition where inflammation is an issue.
So keep with the probiotics… but look for the right kind.
Can you say what the product is that you are using and where to get it? I’d like to hear some different types to broaden my choices as to which yogurt to get. Thanks.
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Danone may be guilty of misleading advertising and some fine-print oriented buyers may actually have felt duped but that does not take away from Activia that it is GREAT yogurt!
I’ll take $100 worth of their yogurt.