In Response To Vice: “Probiotics Are Useless, GMOs Are Fine, And Gluten Is Necessary”

Dear Vice readers,

You may have recently seen the article titled, “Probiotics are useless, GMOs are fine, and gluten is necessary”. If these claims sound sensational and irresponsible, that’s because they are. Unfortunately, writers have to write headlines that will break through the clutter, get clicks, and make more money.

And it’s not just the writers; scientists are under constant pressure to get published in prestigious journals, and of course you’ll only get published if your research sounds new and exciting. If you won’t believe me, listen to John Oliver. He might be more convincing and eloquent than I am.

So it’s no wonder that nutrition research is often misleading, confusing and is turning into somewhat of a joke. Unfortunately, most media companies are going to get away with it too, because they know that the average person is not going to come home after work and sit down to sift through the actual research, and then try to make sense of all the scientific jargon in a subject matter they have no expertise in. They’re realistically going to just remember the headlines, share it over a dinner party, add to the confusion and then move on.

That being said, I thought this article would be a perfect example of how to showcase irresponsible journalism. Now it may not be the writer’s fault (due to their lack of knowledge on the subject, pressure from their boss, I don’t know), but regardless, it is irresponsible and might make them think twice before writing the next sensationalized nutrition article.

Here are reasons why you should ignore this article:

Statement #1: “Probiotics are useless”

This paper reviewed seven randomized controlled trials and found that six out of seven showed no impact.

  • Out of the seven trials, six trials used probiotic dosages that were either 1 billion or 10 billion. One of the seven used a dose of 20 billion. Surprise surprise – the one that had a higher dosage was the one that had an impact!Here’s the thing: probiotic supplementation can range between 1 billion to 450 billion. As a Holistic Nutritionist and someone who worked at a health food store for two years, let me tell you, 1 billion isn’t going to do much. I would never recommend that to my clients. In fact, that’s the amount you typically find in a serving of yogurt. In order to have a therapeutic effect, most practitioners recommend 50 billion and above. I personally take between 25-60 billion as maintenance.
  • Where the heck is all the other research? Why have only these seven papers been selected, yet when I type in “probiotics research” on GreenMedInfo I can find 343 research papers on the topic? This shows that anyone can handpick a few articles to support their point of view and prove their hypothesis was correct.
  • Did you take a look at the sample size for these trials? Most of the research was done on around 20-30 people. You don’t have to be a scientist to realize that’s a pretty small number of people to base your research on.
  • I’d like to bring to attention to the word-for-word conclusion of this paper, because the writer of the Vice article left this part out:Based on our review of the available RCTs, we find there is a lack of evidence to conclude whether or not there is an effect of probiotics on fecal microbiota composition in healthy adults, as assessed by high-throughput molecular techniques. A number of issues blur the conclusions that can be drawn from the studies, including small sample sizes with lack of statistical power, low resolution-methods of assessing fecal microbiota composition, inter-individual variation in susceptibility toward the probiotic, use of different probiotic strains either in isolation or in combination, variations in dosage and administration mode of probiotics, duration of intervention, or variation in the habitual diet of participants. Future research on the impact of probiotics on fecal microbiota configuration and function should involve statistically well-powered RCTs in well-phenotyped individuals.

If you didn’t bother reading that paragraph, what it says is:

Because the sample sizes were tiny, the equipment was a little shitty, the dosages were all over the place (heck one study gave a small amount in a milk fruit juice concoction, the other was a biscuit), and people inherently react to things differently, we don’t think there’s enough evidence here for us to reach a conclusion either way. We need to do more research.

Statement #2: “Gluten is necessary”

This statement in itself is absolute garbage. Now I’m not going to delve into the whole “is gluten-free a real thing or not” because studies exist on both fronts, and it’s still inconclusive. (My personal viewpoint is that if someone feels their symptoms improve without wheat, leave them alone. It’s their body, not yours. And vice versa, lovers of the gluten-free movement need not preach to others either).

For now, let’s take a moment to dissect why this sentence makes no sense.

The researcher claims that it can “leave you deficient in certain vitamins and nutrients, and even over expose you to toxins like arsenic in rice”. That’s like saying avoiding strawberries leaves you at risk to be deficient in Vitamin C. Of course it doesn’t, because you can get Vitamin C in pretty much every other fruit and vegetable. There is nothing unique in wheat that you can’t get elsewhere. You can check out the nutritional breakdown for yourself.

Here are all the other places you can get vitamins and nutrients:

  • Other “whole grains” with a similar nutritional profile, like quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, brown rice, wild rice, oats, sorghum, teff
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Eggs
  • Nuts & Seeds
  • Lentils
  • Beans
  • Fish
  • Chicken
  • Red meat
  • Oh wait, EVERYTHING. Sigh.

The one credit I’ll give to the author is that yes, gluten-free products typically don’t have the best ingredients in them and should be avoided. If you’re going to go gluten-free, just avoid wheat and substitute with other whole grains. Most “gluten-free” processed foods like cereals, waffles and bread are still processed foods with preservatives, fillers and junk ingredients at the end of the day.

“GMOs are fine”

If I went into this topic in detail, this could turn into a book. Plus, I’m no expert on this subject matter.

But,  what I do know is that I think it is irresponsible to say that “GMOs are bad for us”, or that “GMOs are fine” considering how new the science is. No one has done a long-term study yet; it’s not possible. So until then, I will err on the side of caution and avoid them, but not freak out if I have it once in a while.

And in case you’re wondering what the actual report said that led to the author concluding “GMOs are fine”, here is a section from the first page of the chapter titled, “Human Health Effects of Genetically Engineered Crops”.

The committee thinks that it is important to make clear that there are limits to what can be known about the health effects of any food, whether non-GE or GE. If the question is “Is it likely that eating this food today will make me sick tomorrow?” researchers have methods of getting quantitative answers. However, if the question is “is it likely that eating this food for many years will make me live one or a few years less than if I never eat it?” the answer will be much less definitive.

Researchers can provide probabilistic predictions that are based on the available information about the chemical composition of the food, epidemiological data…but absolute answers are rarely available. Furthermore, most current toxicity studies are based on testing individual chemicals rather than chemical mixtures or whole foods because testing of the diverse mixtures of chemicals experienced by humans is so challenging.

Scientific research can answer many questions, but absolute safety of eating specific foods and the safety of other human activities is uncertain. 

In a nutshell:

  • We don’t have definitive answers.
  • Testing is not done using actual food or on humans, it’s isolated chemicals on lab rats. Those two are not the same thing.
  • We shouldn’t be making extreme claims either way, at least not yet.
  • Stop writing clickbait content.

About Alina

I'm a Holistic Nutritionist based in Toronto, Canada and my official title is Certified Nutritional Practitioner (CNP). I received my diploma in Applied Holistic Nutrition from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. I'm a coach and an educator. Follow Alina on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram for all of the latest updates.
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  1. You hit the nail on the head with this one! People need to stop writing clickbait content and more so, people need to actually read the studies that these articles are based on and then form an opinion. I also LOVE that John Oliver clip! Thanks for posting such a great rebuttal! 🙂

    1. Thanks so much Jaclyn! So grateful for that John Oliver video being released around the same time 🙂

  2. Thank you thank you thank you so much! I wrote the author and editor a few hours ago and than forwarded your article to them! We literally said the same thing but in different ways. I’ll forward u my email to author and editor if you’d like.

    I said this:

  3. Thanks for sharing the amounts of probiotics being used in the referenced study. I was skeptical of the Vice article before. Now that I know that the cited study only used small amounts of probiotics, I can clearly see how it was unable to produce definitive results. I work in a health and nutrition store, and I never advise anyone to take less than a dose of 25 billion.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article! Yep, same here. I worked at a health food store for 2 years and would recommend the same thing 🙂

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