Many people are confused about the differences between prebiotics and probiotics. Do you think they mean the same thing? I know I thought that for a while! Which one is better for me? How do I know if I have a prebiotic or a probiotic? We'll have a series of two blog posts that will help to define prebiotics and probiotics and explain why it may be beneficial to have both! This first post in the series covers prebiotics, with an "E"!
Prebiotics, sometimes referred to as “prebiotic fibers,” are non-digestible fibers that act as a food source for the bacteria that naturally live in our gastrointestinal (GI) tract. You can think prebiotics as fertilizer for “good” gut bacteria. Examples of prebiotics that you may see on food labels include inulin, fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and polyols, including lactulose (1).
Prebiotics can also be found naturally in many foods including human breast milk, whole grains, bananas, garlic, onions, artichokes and honey. This list is not all-inclusive but will give you an idea of what foods contain prebiotics. Of note, it is ok to cook foods that contain prebiotics without losing many of the benefits of prebiotics.
While everyday foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds – contain fiber, we tend to think of prebiotics as specific fiber-like ingredients that are added to foods or formula. Many different everyday foods now have prebiotics added, and some nutritional formulas have prebiotics added. Prebiotics can also be taken as a supplement to the diet, for example a powder that you stir into foods or beverages.
How do you define prebiotics?
While all prebiotics act like fibers, not all fibers are prebiotics. Here is a list of characteristics that have been used to define which molecules are prebiotics: (2)
- a non-digestible food ingredient (meaning that our digestive enzymes can’t break it down)
- that beneficially affects the host (that’s us!)
- by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or more of a limited number of bacteria in the colon that can improve the host health
So, in essence a prebiotic is something that we add to food or nutritional formula for the benefits it offers. The benefits come from the fact that only certain “good” gut bacteria tend to digest the prebiotic, meaning that they grow and thrive while other less-helpful bacteria may be crowded out.
Why should I consider taking prebiotics? How will it benefit me?
While prebiotics are basically different types of fiber, not all fiber is the same. Various prebiotics have been shown to have a variety of health benefits (3,4). Prebiotics may help to support normal bowel function. Some studies have also shown that certain prebiotics may help with nutrient absorption, such as the absorption of calcium. And some prebiotics can help to support normal levels of “good” gut bacteria if those levels are low for some reason.
Since most prebiotics can be found in small amounts as part of the fiber in the foods we eat, you are probably already getting prebiotics in your diet and don’t even know it! So if you’re eating your fruits and veggies, you’re already getting the benefits of prebiotics!
People who take prebiotics might have low amounts of fiber in their diet, or might be looking for specific benefits. The best thing to do if you have questions about the possible benefits of prebiotics is to talk to your healthcare team. They can help you to understand the possible benefits of adding prebiotics to your diet, and may be able to help you choose the best source or type.
Why are prebiotics in some nutritional formulas?
For breast-fed infants, breast milk naturally contains molecules – human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) – that behave like prebiotics. They are essentially a form of fiber that supports certain types of bacteria. Multiple health benefits have been attributed to HMOs for breastfed infants. For this reason, many infant formulas have added prebiotics to try to bring some similar benefits to those seen with HMOs. The prebiotics added to various infant formulas are:
- Short-chain fructooligosaccharides (scFOS, a.k.a. fructooligosaccharides)
- Long-chain fructooligosaccharides (lcFOS, a.k.a. inulin)
- Galactooligosaccharides (GOS)
- Polydextrose (PDX)
The diets of typical toddlers, children and teenagers contains foods that are sources of fiber. When the diet is supplemented with a formula or made up of mostly or only formula, the level of fiber in the diet is often lower. Choosing a formula with added prebiotics can make up for some of the lower fiber in the diet. The prebiotics added to various nutritional formulas for children include:
- resistant starch
In the Neocate family of products, Neocate Syneo Infant (for infants) and Neocate Junior with Prebiotics (for children) are the two formulas that are supplemented with prebiotics. Both formulas contain scFOS and lcFOS, but in different amounts and in different ratios.
Now that you've learned about prebiotics, check out the second post in this two-part series about probiotics, with an "O"!
What questions do you have about prebiotics?
Ellen Sviland-Avery joined the Nutricia team during the summer of 2014. She has extensive experience in pediatrics, metabolics and tube feeding. Prior to coming to Nutricia, she worked in home infusion. She has been a registered dietitian for more than 12 years. Her passion in pediatric nutrition started when she was in Birmingham working with children with neurodevelopmental disabilities and has continued throughout her career.
1. Slavin J. Nutrients. 2013;5(4):1417-1435.
2. Gibson GR. J Nutr. 1999;129(7 Suppl):1438S-41S.
3. Saavedra JM, et al. Br J Nutr. 2002;87S2:S241.
4. Waligora-Dupriet AJ, et al. Int J Food Microbiol. 2007;113:108.