A Complete Guide to Prebiotics and What They Do

More than just you are fed by the food you eat. The bacteria in your gut are also fed by fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. You’ve probably heard of these “good” bacteria before. They are called probiotics, and the group of them is called the gut microbiome. But these bacteria need certain nutrients called prebiotics to grow, and there is more and more evidence that getting enough of these nutrients may be the key to keeping your good bacteria healthy and keeping you healthy overall. This guide has all the information you need about prebiotics and how they affect your health.

What Are Prebiotics?

To understand what prebiotics are, we need to know about the microbiome, which is the community of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live on and in the human body. This group of microorganisms lives mostly in the gut and works together to keep you safe from infections and other health problems. Probiotics are the name for the good bacteria in your gut. There are already some of them there, but you can get more by eating fermented foods or taking probiotic supplements. These bacteria eat the food you eat. They eat the nutrients that humans can’t break down, which helps them grow. Prebiotics are the name for these nutrients. Katie Guzzetta, PhD, a visiting researcher in the neurology department at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, describes the biotics family in a few words:

  • Prebiotics: nutrients we consume that support the health of our gut microbes
  • Probiotics: bacteria that provide a known health benefit to the host
  • Synbiotics: a combination of pre- and probiotics that work together to provide a health benefit to their host
  • Postbiotics: bioactive compounds produced by bacteria that provide a health benefit — the products of probiotics consuming prebiotics

What is the Potential Benefits of Prebiotics?

Think about high-fiber foods, which Debbie Petitpain, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Charleston, South Carolina, says are “what grandma used to call roughage.” Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans are all good sources of insoluble fiber. “It’s funny that we went through this “I don’t eat anything white” phase,” she said, “because white vegetables like onions, garlic, and leeks are full of prebiotics.” Prebiotics are also good for you when you eat bananas, asparagus, artichokes, soybeans, chickpeas, oats, and berries.

Some foods are sold with the claim that prebiotics have been added to them. The FDA keeps an eye on how safe they are, but not how well they work.
The FDA does not have a set definition for prebiotics either. Instead, it lets food and supplement companies self-report their products as “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS.

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What Foods Contain Prebiotics?

You can also buy prebiotic supplements over the counter at pharmacies and supermarkets all over the United States. You might want to try one, especially if you have trouble going to the bathroom. Just know that a company can put a product on the market without FDA approval. The FDA will only step in if there are safety concerns. And there are no rules about whether supplements really do what they say they do. Still, you can take some steps to make sure you’re getting a good product. Karen Hecht, PhD, the scientific affairs manager at AstaReal in Burlington, New Jersey, suggests looking at a few things:

Dr. Hecht said, “If your product has a branded ingredient, you have something to look into.” If a supplement’s label has a trademark or registered trademark symbol next to a branded ingredient, you can look at the product’s website to find out what kinds of independent testing have been done to show that the ingredient works. You can also search the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed database to find out what studies have been done about the effectiveness of the product, as well as the dose size.

The 411 on Probiotic Supplements and How to Choose a Quality Product.

Look for products with a Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) or United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) certification seal on the label. The FDA gives advice on what the best ways are to make things right now.

Canada and Europe have rules about how well supplements work, but the US does not. On Health Canada’s Licensed Natural Health Products Database, you can look up a product or an ingredient to see if it has been shown to do what the product says it does.
Hecht said that Health Canada does review and approve health claims. “They don’t let supplements put a health claim on the bottle unless Health Canada has looked at the science and approved it, as well as the wording.” You can search for brands or ingredients, but not for the word “prebiotic.”

One thing that could be bad about supplements is that they can be pricey. “Whole foods give you more bang for your buck if you want to rebalance the bacteria in your gut,” says Petitpain. “Consumers should try to eat the recommended number of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains before adding supplements.”

Are there any possible health risks with prebiotics?

Most of the time, prebiotics are very safe. If you get your prebiotics from food and are already in good health, there isn’t much agreement on how much might be “too much.” Some studies, however, have shown that giving probiotics and prebiotics through a feeding tube in the small intestine to very sick people, including those with organ failure, may have made them even sicker or even killed them.

Before you take any supplements or increase the amount of prebiotics you eat, talk to your doctor. So that your medicine can be fully absorbed, they may tell you to take fiber or prebiotic supplements at different times than your medicine.
Prebiotics are an important part of keeping your microbiome and immune system healthy. Eating a lot of healthy foods is the best way to get them.

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