Probiotics vs. Prebiotics: What You Need to Know

Are you confused about probiotics and prebiotics?  This is a dilemma facing many people, and outrageous marketing claims aren’t helping matters.  So, “what’s the difference?” you may be wondering.
The Pros of Probiotics
Probiotics are basically microorganisms that promote health.  They are primarily bacteria that offer health benefits when eaten or supplemented with. There are many different strains of bacteria that offer an array of benefits, ranging from boosting immunity and reducing arthritis symptoms to boosting brain health and fighting cancer.  These bacteria are primarily from the Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria families.  Their names are usually shortened to L. for Lactobacilli and B. for Bifidobacteria when they are listed on the labels of probiotic supplements. For example, L. acidophilus and B. bifidum are two of the main strains naturally present in healthy human intestines. There are, of course, many other strains. They “crowd out” harmful pathogenic bacteria and yeasts in the intestines, helping to prevent and heal disease.
Unheated or unpasteurized fermented foods naturally contain probiotics, with different foods containing different strains. Since these cultures are typically airborne, there are also regional differences in the type of strains found in food products from different places. Some of the probiotic-rich foods include: sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, and yogurt. However, keep in mind that eating yogurt is rarely enough to obtain the many health benefits of probiotics. Many commercially-available brands of yogurt don’t contain “live cultures.” If you’re choosing one, be sure to choose one that says “live cultures” on the label.  While the claim doesn’t guarantee that the cultures are intact, it may increase the odds.  If they are subjected to excessive heat during the manufacturing, processing, transportation, or storage of the products, the probiotic content will drop.
Sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, and other fermented foods are also sensitive to heat so if they sit on grocery store shelves at room temperature you can bet they were pasteurized and don’t contain any remaining probiotic cultures. Choose products from the refrigerator section of your natural food store that are labeled “unpasteurized” for the probiotics to remain intact.
Dispelling the Myths about Prebiotics
Prebiotics are the food that probiotics feed on to enable them to populate the intestines. Many food products and supplements come with claims that they contain prebiotics that are necessary for probiotics to work but that isn’t the whole story. In most cases, adding prebiotics to packaged foods or supplements isn’t necessary and is really more of a marketing gimmick in my opinion. Here’s why: Prebiotics are carbohydrates such as sugars, starches, and fiber and are found in all plant-based foods. Beneficial bacteria feed on these substances in our gut and proliferate, improving gut health and overall health. If you eat fruit, or fiber- and carbohydrate-rich whole grains and beans, your body likely has all the prebiotics it needs. But, you’ll have to make a concerted effort to eat more fermented foods or take probiotic supplements to get adequate probiotics.
If you read “contains FOS” or “fructooligosaccharides” keep in mind that “oligosaccharides” are simply sugar molecules, and “fructo” means that the sugars are derived from fruit. If you eat fruit or other carbohydrates, which break down into natural sugars, you’re probably getting all the prebiotics you need. Inulin is a type of fiber that is also touted as a popular prebiotic; and while it may be beneficial, it isn’t necessary in most cases. Some of the best sources of prebiotics include: Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, onions, garlic, chicory root, asparagus, bananas, dandelions, endive, radicchio and burdock. Eat more of these foods and other foods rich in fiber to give the beneficial bacteria a boost.
Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water if you’re eating probiotic-rich foods or taking probiotic supplements because, like you, the beneficial bacteria need water to function.