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Posted on: July 13th, 2021

The food we eat as human beings change drastically from person to person. Things like culture, economic health, availability–even preferences dictate what we can eat.

Food is metabolized by gut microbes, which also help bolster our immune systems. The last few years have seen a large increase in the amount of research being conducted on gut health in general. There is still much to be learned about the big picture, but a few areas of research have jumped ahead of the pack.

These areas of research include probiotics and prebiotics. You’ve probably heard both of these terms at one point or another. But what’s the difference between them?

Probiotics Vs. Prebiotics

It’s actually very simple to break down: Probiotics are actual bacteria (healthy bacteria) while prebiotics are basically a food that enriches the diet of probiotic bacteria. So, probiotic: healthy bacteria. Prebiotic: food for probiotic bacteria.

Fiber is the most common content in prebiotics. Gut bacteria are able to manufacture some prebiotics on their own, but enriching the food supply for probiotic bacteria has been the area of focus for recent studies.

“Dietary fibers are more complicated than you may think because there are so many subtle differences in their chemical makeup,” says Julie Stefanski, registered dietitian, nutritionist, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. 

“Researchers are studying prebiotics as a possible aid to many health conditions, including allergies, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, skincare, and also how they could bolster the health of lungs and the reproductive tract. Prebiotics are even being studied as an intervention for COVID-19 with the idea that a healthy immune system — bolstered by diet and nutrition — can help your body fight off viral infections. If some of the research pans out, prebiotics could fuel a new generation of food products.”

What’s In Prebiotics?

Prebiotics contain mostly complex carbohydrates that are low-digestible. Microbes in the gut use these fibers, which can help strengthen the immune system and reduce inflammation. Prebiotics are healthy foods but can be hard to digest without the right mix of probiotic bacteria.

Foods like lentils, bananas, onions, and whole grains make up the base of a prebiotic-friendly diet. Some fermented foods that contain prebiotics also pack double the benefit and contain probiotics as well. They include sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and kombucha, among others.

Most prebiotics are low-digestible, complex carbohydrates. Some examples of prebiotics are whole grains, bananas, onions, legumes like chickpeas and lentils, and greens. If you choose 

The Future of Prebiotics and Probiotics

Current research is looking at many things. At the top of the list are combinations of prebiotics and probiotics that work together to aid the digestive system.

“Prebiotics are not as simple as adding asparagus to the diet. When you think about something like food, we are very cautious when we use this kind of language. We think there has to be a really deep commitment to understanding the components of food that affect functions of the microbiota that in turn affects humans.” 

“In a recent series of papers in Cell, Elife, and Cell Host & Microbe the team studied how prebiotic fiber is selectively used by gut microbes by designing a biosensor — a series of artificial food particles attached to microscopic glass beads. A color label helps track the beads. The team sent the nutrient-decorated beads into the intestinal tracts of specialized mice with specific human gut communities.” 

Research like this is allowing us to look at prebiotics and postbiotics like never before. Finding the optimal balance between probiotics and the prebiotics they consume is the goal while discovering how to properly apply that relationship to our diet is the end game.

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