Enlisting the help of friendly bacteria: Probiotics and visions of health, nutrition and science in a modern world

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Inst of Science and Society


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Description Using novel combinations of linguistic and discourse analytic techniques, our study showed how probiotics are framed in marketing and the media and by members of the public in a climate where food choices are surrounded by scientific uncertainties and personal fears.

Promotional and media framings of probiotics

The analysis of the online promotional material helped us to reveal how producers of probiotics seek to engage with the increasingly sophisticated and ideologically informed consumer to generate trust for their products (Koteyko & Nerlich, 2007; Burges Watson et al, in press). A step by step analysis of the multimodal content of the websites enabled us to show how appeals to shared values (family values, wild nature/rustic imagery and importance of good impressions) together with associations with high-tech science function in generating trust and reinforcing the discourse of healthism where individuals have the responsibility to build inner armors in their attempts to achieve optimal health. The analysis has shown how corporations seek to value-add 'health' and 'naturalness' to products to distinguish them from competitors' products. In this process of battling for products survival corporate power 'becomes allied with the technical-rational power of science to shape our core understandings of what is 'good for us' (Dixon & Banwell, 2005: 128).

The study of the 1985-1995 decade of the UK media coverage revealed an emphasis on scientific aspects of probiotics especially with relation to animal health, antibiotics and hygiene, topics that faded out at the end of the millennium. Drawing on the accounts of scientists and nutritionists, probiotics were portrayed as 'natural inhabitants of the gut' that can fight their nasty 'cousins' the superbugs and help build up the immune system's natural defences against them and other illnesses of 'modernity', such as allergies. During the 1996-2006 decade the 'health maximising' qualities of probiotics came to the fore as they were represented as potential cures for a plethora of 'modern' ills such as improper diets, stress, lack of energy, etc. We argue that this increasing attention paid to probiotics at a time when modern society came to be framed as a 'risk society' (Beck, 1992) is not accidental (Nerlich & Koteyko, 2008). Probiotics have come to be framed as personal armour that can be worn in the general struggle for health and well-being in the modern risk society and a post-modern society plagued by various types of 'bio-terrorism' and can become one way of creating what Szasz (2007) has recently called an 'imaginary refuge' in which we feel safe and sealed off from the hazards of the modern world. As our study of the promotional material shows, manufacturers are successfully exploiting this 'shift to probiotics' and the hopes and fears on which it is based.

In summary, and in relation to the research question, this part of the project established that:

o visions of science as well as nature were used to promote probiotics as being of benefit for modern consumers living in a stressful world;

o science was discussed in early coverage of probiotics in the UK media but mainly with relation to animal health;

o visions of 'vitality' and 'good bacteria' structured promotional material;

o visions of an inner and outer world out of balance and under threat from unfriendly bacteria that could be rebalanced with the help of friendly ones structured early media coverage, whereas later media coverage 'normalised' probiotics as one quick fix panacea to modern ills.

Lay discourses on probiotics and healthy eating

Focus group discussions with different stakeholders helped us to see what discursive resources are available and how individuals appropriate them to account for their purchase of probiotics for themselves or for others.

The analysis of the transcripts revealed that 'the balanced diet repertoire' dominated the discussions as the majority of participants stressed the importance of a nutritionally balanced diet, conceiving it as part and parcel of leading a 'good' and responsible life. Two other 'eating for pleasure' and 'eating and feeding for health' repertoires alerted us to the important but yet understudied role played by pleasure and moral obligations in the day-to-day choices made when purchasing food. The moral context of purchasing 'healthy food' was visible in the way FG participants constructed accounts of the probiotics 'benefits' in the widest sense, as reflected in the frequent use of 'good' and 'better' in all their meanings (Koteyko, under review). Consequently, the food with perceived health benefits appears to be often bought for oneself as part of self-improvement behaviour (doing what is best for you), whereas the purchase of the same food for others reflects the moral values residing in performing the right role, conforming to the socially approved role of caring partner or mother (doing what is best for others) (Crawford, Nerlich & Koteyko in prep.). This second type of purchasing behaviour was at odds with the consumer image projected by the marketing of probiotics (Koteyko & Nerlich, 2007) which focuses on the 'self' rather than the 'other'.

In light of government attempts to launch new healthy living campaigns, it is important to know whether people's understanding of nutrition is shaped by recent high profile food scandals (BSE, GMOs), the threat from 'unfriendly bacteria' (Crawford et al, 2003) and issues of cleanliness and food hygiene. Our initial hypothesis that purchase of probiotics may be influenced by preconceptions of 'good' or 'bad' bacteria was not confirmed. Only a few of our respondents mentioned 'unfriendly bacteria' but they did talk about them as posing a health threat that can be counteracted to a certain extent by eating 'friendly bacteria' promoted as 'strengthening' one's immune system. Food scandals and issues of food hygiene and cleanliness did not feature in the participants' accounts at all, and the scientific aspects of probiotics that received coverage in newspaper articles in the 1980s and 90s were also only touched upon. Instead, the respondents discussed their purchase or rejection of probiotics in the light of their 'extra' health benefits for themselves or their loved ones, or in terms of their taste and convenience of use.

By demonstrating how considerations of the relationship between healthy eating and functional foods are entangled with notions of indulgence, individualism, social norms, responsibility and self-control we hope to have illuminated some aspects of the complexity inherent in lay understandings of functional food.

In summary, and in relation to the research question, this part of the project established that:

o awareness of scientific issues was extremely low in those who participated in focus groups;

o members of the public employed established visions of a 'good' and 'balanced' diet and a 'good' life into which probiotics either fitted in or not, according to various norms of health and morality.
Exploitation Route nutritional advice
Sectors Healthcare

URL http://www.esrc.ac.uk/my-esrc/grants/RES-000-22-2289/outputs/Read/6b6cdaa4-6d3f-408e-a099-47a24556eb9a