What are Prebiotics?
How Prebiotics Work
Prebiotics are really the new kid on the block. The term was coined in 1995. A prebiotic is a special type of soluble fiber that is used mostly by the beneficial good bacteria as a fuel. These good bacteria, in turn, produce certain substances that acidify the colon (a very good thing) and serve as a nutrition source for the colon’s own cells. Isn’t this remarkable? The colon provides a warm, oxygen-free environment for these beneficial bacteria to grow. These bacteria, in turn, manufacture the nutrition source for the colon itself. This is a true symbiotic relationship where both the bacteria and colon depend on each other and promote each others’ health. Of course, the body benefits even more as some, rather remarkable health benefits occur when this system is operating maximally.
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So what are prebiotics? The ones with the most science behind them are inulin and oligofructose. Inulin itself, is remarkable in that it has been around in the plant world for a very long time. It has been found in over 36,000 different plants, so it somehow has been a vital food source for plant-eating animals and humans for a very long time. Interestingly, as our food industries and agriculture have developed, the foods in which we get inulin have become limited.
We now find inulin in wheat, onions, bananas, garlic, leeks, chicory root, Jerusalem artichokes, wild yam, agave, and jicama.
In the U.S., most people get very little of this valuable fiber, perhaps only 2-3 grams a day on average with 70% of this coming from wheat and 20% from onions. Europeans eat three to five times this amount of inulin-containing foods.
- is not digested by the small intestine
- is used as fuel, or fermented, by some colon bacteria
- produces health benefits by objective measurements
According to some leading authorities, only inulin and oligofructose have fulfilled these three criteria. There are only a few others, but none with as much medical research.
So, the proven prebiotics fibers are a relatively new discovery. More than this, they have been found by careful research to provide significant health benefits, not only to the colon but to the body as a whole.
What are Probiotics
Probiotics are live bacteria that are present in yogurt, other fermented foods, and in pills. They are promoted as a benefit to the human digestive system. Normally you have trillions upon trillions of bacteria within the colon. Normally we ingest bacteria every time we swallow. Many of these swallowed bacteria may be beneficial while most are simply innocuous and cause no problems. The question for everyone who takes a probiotic much beyond yogurt is whether they really are a health benefit. Here is what we know medically about probiotics.
The Role Probiotics Play in Your Health
Up until the past few years, scientists in the medical profession paid little attention to the colonies of bacteria that live in the lower gut. Today, we know maintaining a healthy balance of good versus bad bacteria is important because people with more beneficial bacteria are less likely to suffer from a wide range of diseases and conditions.
Once GI experts realized there is more to the lower gut than first assumed, the push to understand the diverse roles these bacteria play became urgent. Many mysteries still need solving, but clinical evidence increasingly indicates that people in good health should optimize lower gut bacteria. You can accomplish this by eating prebiotics to encourage the growth of your existing gut microbes, and probiotics to add to the ones that are already there.
The science on what probiotics do is still emerging. There is some hard evidence that suggests eating probiotic foods and supplements can have a beneficial effect on health. Other evidence suggests probiotics benefits are limited to those individuals in good health and should be avoided by those who suffer from certain serious health conditions. There is no research that demonstrates the risks or the benefits of probiotic supplements on children.
Despite the uncertainty, foods enriched with probiotics and probiotic supplements are increasingly popular in the U.S. Finding probiotic supplements in grocery and health food stores is easy. For example, you may already know that yogurt contains probiotic bacteria such as lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. Many clinical studies suggest these bacteria relieve symptoms related to lactose intolerance.
In addition, probiotic bacteria also help with common digestive complaints such as diarrhea and gas. Although some yogurt brands advertise themselves as being specially formulated to help with digestion, any yogurt with “live” or “active” cultures (bacteria) can help.
Yogurt and supplements aren’t the only places you can find probiotics. More foods that contain probiotics include:
- Unpasteurized sauerkraut and kimchi — These prepared dishes contain three essential probiotics plus many vitamins. Always choose unpasteurized versions of these prepared foods since pasteurization kills the helpful bacteria (probiotics).
- Miso soup — Fermented soybean paste may not sound delicious but it is. It’s also extremely nutritious. Miso contains over 150 bacteria, is low in calories and high in vitamins and antioxidants
- Soft cheese and enriched milk — If yogurt doesn’t appeal to you, consider soft cheeses such as Gouda. Evidence suggests probiotic bacteria that live in soft cheese are better able to survive the trip through the acidic stomach. Probiotic-enriched milk, as well as kefir, are more potential sources
- Naturally fermented sour pickles — Pickling in salt water instead of vinegar encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria
- Sourdough bread — Sourdough contains lactobacillus, one of the bacteria found in yogurt
Are Probiotics Safe?
Here is what we know about the safety of probiotics so far:
- Most probiotics are safe. However, if you have an immune disorder like lupus, take chemotherapy or have any serious chronic disease, check with your physician.
- All probiotics are not equal. Most are considered of the good types to have in the gut, but unless a complicated stool test is done on the bacterial makeup of the gut, it will always be a guess. Remember that there are well over 1000 species of bacteria already in the colon. We don’t really know if adding a few more will make any difference.
- It is known that it is unlikely that that taking a probiotic by itself will result in its taking up permanent residence in your gut. Some experts say that you have to take it indefinitely.
- Some probiotics have been effective in certain intestinal disorders like childhood diarrhea and ulcerative colitis. Again, check with your physician.
- Antibiotics taken by mouth are terribly disruptive to the entire healthy bacterial complex. Try to avoid them as much as possible.
- Antibiotics in animal feed may get into your body in small but significant amounts. Check with your butcher on where his meat and poultry come from.
- A low saturated fat diet is likely far more important in establishing a good bacterial flora than any probiotic.
Also, remember that while a billion or so bacteria sounds like a lot, it is really a very small quantity compared to the trillions upon trillions of bacteria that we know are present in everyone.
Probiotics and Fiber
What about prebiotics vs probiotics? Prebiotics are the food fibers that go through the gut unchanged and are then used by good colon bacteria as a food source for their own growth. Everyone already has most of these good bacteria present, but often in small quantities. Prebiotics are used to stimulate their growth. Simply stated, you already grow your own probiotics within your colon. You do not rely on them to make the passage through the stomach acid — acid that can destroy many probiotic bacteria. That’s why taking a probiotic supplement or adding probiotic foods to your diet does not always help your digestive system. You can eat as many probiotic bacteria as you want, but if they don’t survive the trip to the colon, your effort will be fruitless.
Nevertheless, the presence of certain bacteria in the lower gut benefits overall health, not only digestion. The science on the role of the lower gut is changing every day and has advanced significantly — even over the past 10 years. Research strongly suggests that a favorable bacterial balance in the lower gut positively affects the factors influencing heart disease, immunity, bone strength, depression, and obesity and weight loss. Science has only just begun to determine the roles that bacteria play in human health, but it seems clear that healthier people have healthier bacterial balances. People with poorly balanced bacteria levels are more likely to suffer serious health problems.
For the generally healthy person, you can make a very good case to trust your own body to select and grow the best bacteria that are already in everyone. The foods you eat greatly influence your bacterial mix. Although probiotics offer many positive health benefits, there is no guarantee that they can make the trip from your mouth to your lower gut intact. Although adding more prebiotic fiber to your diet cannot guarantee safe passage of probiotics, it can influence the healthy bacteria that already live in your system. If probiotics help you, eating prebiotic foods or supplements will cause those healthy bacteria to flourish.
That’s why adding probiotics and prebiotics to your diet provide the best possible outcome from a bacterial perspective. It isn’t always easy to eat naturally prebiotic-enriched foods, however, because they are often distasteful to eat in quantity. Would you enjoy eating several cups of raw onion or garlic every day? Probably not. Other foods that contain prebiotic fiber, such as bread and bananas, are high in calories. Consuming hundreds of calories of these foods every day is counterproductive if you’re trying to lose weight.
The foods that are highest in prebiotic fiber are also difficult to find and prepare. Jerusalem artichoke — not the average artichoke sold in your local grocery store — and chicory root contain the highest amounts of inulin and oligofructose. The good news is that Prebiotin offers an easy solution: with our simple supplement, you can get enough prebiotic fiber through normal dietary intake instead of eating a high amount of chicory root a day. Prebiotin is also low in calories. Unlike other fiber supplements, Prebiotin does not have an unpleasant taste or texture. It is slightly sweet and easily combines with beverages such as coffee. You can also sprinkle it on top of food.
With Prebiotin, you can easily add prebiotic fiber to your diet without worrying about eating huge amounts of troublesome foods or hunting down hard-to-find ingredients. You also won’t have to worry about loading up on high-calorie foods that can negatively affect any effort to lose weight. Combining Prebiotin prebiotic fiber with a diet enriched with probiotic foods can only help your effort to positively influence the bacterial balance in your lower gut.
Prebiotin® Fiber Complements Probiotics Perfectly
If you want to take advantage of the benefits of probiotics and you also want to make sure the beneficial bacteria you already have is optimized to its full potential, supplement your probiotic regimen with Prebiotin. A trained microbiologist cannot tell you which probiotics are the best ones to choose, so why try to do something you are not trained to do? Eat lots of foods with prebiotics in them and take a prebiotic supplement like Prebiotin. It’s the best thing you can do to maximize the benefits of both prebiotics and probiotics on the bacteria in your gut, and your overall good gut health.
Finally, there is a great deal of good research being done on probiotics. Keep tuned as interesting things may be happening.
Prebiotics vs Probiotics
|PREBIOTICS are a special form of dietary fiber that acts as a fertilizer for the good bacteria in your gut.
||PROBIOTICS are live bacteria that can be found in yogurt and other fermented foods. There are hundreds of probiotic species available. Which of these species are best for the average healthy person is still unknown.
|PREBIOTIC powders are not affected by heat, cold, acid, or time.
||PROBIOTIC bacteria must be kept alive to be active. They may be killed by heat, stomach acid, or simply die with time.
|PREBIOTICS nourish the good bacteria that everyone already has in their gut.
||PROBIOTICS must compete with the over 1000 bacteria species already in the gut.
|Research has determined that supplementing with an oligofructose enriched inulin-based (OEI) PREBIOTIC fiber can be helpful with a wide range of conditions and disorders, including digestive disorders, obesity, and bone loss.
||Certain PROBIOTIC species have been shown to be helpful for childhood diarrhea, irritable bowel disease, and for recurrence of certain bowel infections such as C. difficile.
While prebiotics and probiotics sound similar, these supplements are very different and have different roles in the digestive system (or gut). Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria that are naturally created by the process of fermentation in foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, miso soup, kimchi, and others.
Doctors often prescribe probiotics in supplement form to patients on antibiotics in an attempt to repopulate the colon with desirable bacteria after the course of antibiotics has wiped out both beneficial and undesirable bacteria. Some find taking probiotics can combat gastrointestinal side effects of the medication and reduce the bacterial growth leading to yeast infections.
Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and/or activity of a select group of desirable bacteria already in the colon. A helpful metaphor may be a garden. You can add seeds—the probiotic bacteria—while the prebiotic fiber is the water and fertilizer that helps the seeds to grow and flourish.
"Both probiotics and prebiotics have been added to some commercial infant formula and child food products to improve intestinal health." [Thomas 2010]
Benefits of PROBIOTICS
The beneficial effects of probiotics have been widely demonstrated. [Toscana 2016] Health professionals often recommend probiotics in supplement form to patients on antibiotics in an attempt to repopulate the colon with desirable bacteria after the course of antibiotics has wiped out both beneficial and undesirable bacteria. [Hyman 2016]
Some find taking probiotics can combat gastrointestinal side effects of the medication and reduce the bacterial growth leading to yeast infections.
Since each body is different, it is necessary to determine which probiotics will be helpful to one’s own system. [Laurence 2018] In addition, it is important to make sure the bacteria in probiotic supplements are alive. Probiotic bacteria are fragile and can easily be killed by stomach acid, time, and heat.
“The biggest influence you can have on the state of your gut lining, and a healthy microbiome, is your diet—which you control.” — Jeannette Hyde, Nutritional Therapist BSc., a leading nutritional therapist, regular BBC commentator, and author of The Gut Makeover and The Gut Makeover Recipe Book.
Benefits of PREBIOTICS
Researchers have found that prebiotics are helpful in increasing the helpful bacteria already in the gut that reduce disease risk and improve general well being. [Florowska 2016] Prebiotic fiber is not as fragile as probiotic bacteria because it is not affected by heat, stomach acid, or time. Nor does the fermentation process differ depending on the individual.
Scientific literature indicates that increasing prebiotic fiber intake supports immunity, digestive health, bone density, regularity, weight management, and brain health.
Which foods help me to boost PREBIOTICS and PROBIOTICS in my diet?
As discussed earlier, fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, and yogurt are rich sources of probiotic bacteria that go directly to populate the colon.
By boosting your total daily fiber consumption, you will also boost the prebiotic fiber you ingest to feed probiotic and other desirable strains of bacteria in the gut for improved health and well being. [Pandey 2015]
Many high fiber foods are also high in prebiotic fiber. The following chart includes a sample of foods high in total fiber—and prebiotic fiber.
Foods Rich in Prebiotic Fiber:
- Chicory Root - About 65% of the chicory root is fiber by weight and is an extraordinarily rich source of prebiotic fiber.
- Onions and Garlic - 2 grams of fiber per 1/2 cup - about 17% is prebiotic fiber.
- Oatmeal - 2 grams of fiber per 1/2 cup - very high in prebiotic fiber content.
- Wheat Bread and Wheat Bran - About 1 gram of fiber per slice; nearly 70% of the total fiber in wheat bran is prebiotic fiber.
- Asparagus - 2-3 grams of prebiotic fiber per 100 gram serving (about 1/2 cup)
- Dandelion Greens - 4 grams of fiber per 100 gram serving (about 1/2 cup) - most of this fiber is prebiotic.
- Jerusalem Articoke - 2 grams of fiber per 100 gram serving (about 1/2 cup - 76% comes from inulin prebiotic fiber.
- Barley - 3-8 grams of prebiotic fiber per 100 gram serving (about 1/2 cup).
- Apple with Skin - 2 grams of fiber per 1/2 apple (mainly in the skin). Pectin, which has prebiotic benefits, makes up about 50% of the total fiber in an apple.
Why take supplements when we can eat fiber-rich and fermented foods?
Prebiotic fiber occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, such as chicory root, onions, garlic, leeks, bananas, yams, barley, rye, wheat, asparagus, beans, and many others.
While many of us attempt to include these healthy sources of prebiotic fiber in our diets, our modern lifestyle of fast, processed foods that include high amounts of sugar and synthetic ingredients can make it difficult to eat the daily recommended amounts of total and prebiotic fiber. It is very difficult to eat enough of these high prebiotic fiber sourced foods to get the minimum daily requirements of prebiotic fiber from food alone. That is why supplements such as Prebiotin can be so important.
In addition, as both Americans and other Western countries integrate gluten-free diets or stop eating wheat products altogether, the loss of fiber has become a major health concern, especially since Americans get about 70% of their prebiotic fiber from wheat. Fiber is critical to maintain heart and bone health, to name just a few benefits.
Research has determined that the best of the prebiotic supplements include the two types of fiber derived from the chicory root, inulin and oligofructose (not a sugar), a subset of inulin. Prebiotin® Prebiotic Fiber includes oligofructose-enriched inulin (OEI) naturally derived from the chicory root. It is a full-spectrum prebiotic fiber that nourishes bacteria on both sides of the colon and inhibits the growth of undesirable microbiota.
Suggested Fiber Amounts*
- Dietary fiber: 25-38g
- Prebiotic fiber: 5g-20g
* From the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotic
Average amounts of total dietary fiber actually consumed daily: 15-18 grams per day
(according to USDA statistics)
Comparing PROBIOTICS and PREBIOTICS
It is clearly vital to nourish a healthy bacterial mix in the colon. It is best to start with a foundation of healthy eating, focusing on fresh, organic vegetables, while avoiding processed food products and sugary foods and drinks.
Supplementing with both probiotics and prebiotics can be helpful, but it is important to understand that probiotics, especially as supplements, are fragile. Probiotic bacteria are only effective if they are alive. They can be killed by heat, stomach acid, or simply die with time.
Since hundreds of types of probiotics are available, it is hard to determine which types are beneficial for our unique systems. Prebiotin Prebiotic Fiber has the advantage of not being affected by heat, digestive juices, or time. Prebiotin nourishes the beneficial bacteria already in the gut and inhibits the growth of undesirable microbes. The impact is universal and not determined by the body’s unique requirements.
When is the best time to take Prebiotics and Probiotics?
The best time to take prebiotics and probiotics is regularly. Both can be taken at the same time, daily. We recommend taking them at the same time each day in order to establish a healthy routine. Your gut microbiome will be grateful!
First published on April 22, 2014 and edited with updated content and references on March 15, 2018.
- Florowska A, K Krygier, T Florowski, and E Dłużewska. 2016. “Prebiotics as functional food ingredients preventing diet-related diseases.” Food & function 7(5):2147-55.
- Hyman, Mark MD. 2016. “Do Probiotics Really Work?” blog
- Kechagia, Maria Kechagia, Dimitrios Basoulis, Stavroula Konstantopoulou, Dimitra Dimitriadi, Konstantina Gyftopoulou, Nikoletta Skarmoutsou, and Eleni Maria Fakiri. 2013. “Health Benefits of Probiotics: A Review.” ISRN Nutr. 481651. Published online 2013 Jan 2. doi: 10.5402/2013/481651
- Laurence, Emily. 2018. “Which probiotic is right for you? These are the exact bacteria strains to look for.” Well + Good. February 13, 2018.
- Pandey, Kavita R, Suresh R. Naik, and Babu V. Vakil. 2015. “Probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics- a review.” Journal of Food Science and Technology. Dec; 52(12): 7577–7587. Published online 2015 Jul 22. doi: 10.1007/s13197-015-1921-1 PMCID: PMC4648921
- Thomas, DW, and F Greer. 2010. “Probiotics and prebiotics in pediatrics.” Pediatrics Dec 1;126(6):1217-31.
- Toscano M, R De Grandi, L Pastorelli, M Vecchi, L Drago. 2017. “A consumer’s guide for probiotics: 10 golden rules for a correct use.” Digestive and Liver Disease 49 (November): 1177-1184. doi: 10.1016/j.dld.2017.07.011. Epub 2017 Aug 1.
- Verspreet J, B Damen, WF Broekaert, K Verbeke, JA Delcour, CM Courtin. 2016. “A critical look at prebiotics within the dietary fiber concept.” Annual review of food science and technology Feb 28 (7):167-90.