Probiotics vs. Prebiotics—What’s the Difference?

You have probably heard or seen the words probiotic and prebiotic more than once.  Maybe you’ve seen it on your yogurt carton or read an article in a magazine about them.  So…what’s the fuss about?  Why are probiotics and prebiotics so important for your diet and what’s the difference between the two?

First of all, you need to know that more than 400 types of microorganisms are living in your gastrointestinal tract—right now, at this moment.  It may disgust you, but many of them are actually healthy.  However, some are not.  The healthy bacteria are there to protect your body against the unhealthy bacteria.  They also help your body digest food and use some important vitamins you get from that digested food.

So what is a probiotic?  It is a live microorganism that is beneficial in many ways.  It stimulates the growth of microorganisms with beneficial properties.  In simpler words—it encourages the growth of the “good” bacteria in your digestive system.  Probiotics synthesize vitamins, particularly B vitamins that are necessary for several body functions.  They have been known to decrease allergies and dental caries.  Individuals with digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease may see an improvement in their symptoms if they make probiotics part of their diet.  These “good” bacteria can also improve cholesterol levels and decrease one’s risk for colon cancer.  The wide range of probiotic health benefits is very convincing and makes you wonder why anyone would be discouraged to take them.  There is a list of foods containing probiotics including yogurt, cottage cheese, fresh sauerkraut, soy sauce and buttermilk—just to name a few.  Probiotics can also be taken in the form of a supplement.

A prebiotic is a non-digestible food ingredient that “feeds” the probiotics.  Because of them, beneficial bacteria are able to thrive in the digestive tract.  It is important to consume prebiotics and probiotics at the same time to sustain the life of the probiotic.  Prebiotics enhance mineral absorption, particularity calcium, iron and magnesium.  Because of their ability to enhance calcium absorption, they can decrease one’s risk for developing osteoporosis and other bone conditions.   Same as probiotics, prebiotics are known to improve cholesterol levels and decrease risks for colon cancer.  You can obtain prebiotics from foods such as: chicory root, bananas, wheat, rye, barley, berries, honey, flax, oatmeal, garlic, onions, leafy greens, legumes—and the list goes on.

To enhance the benefits of probiotics, you can consider incorporating resistant starch into your diet.  They have a function similar to that of prebiotics—they help to feed probiotics.  This substance is found in cooked starchy products.

Supplements for probiotics and prebiotics are available, but you need to be cautious when deciding which to purchase.  This is because probiotics in supplements aren’t always live—and they are only beneficial when they are live.  Accuflora has been found to be highly survivable throughout the digestive process…this is important because probiotics will not even technically be considered a probiotic if they aren’t alive.  Prebiotic supplements come in many forms, and you can talk to a doctor or decide for yourself which is the best for you.

Probiotics and prebiotics should be emphasized in everyone’s diet.  They provide the body with benefits that range from the digestive system to the cardiovascular system.  Something like that should not be ignored.  Make changes to your diet if you don’t think you consume enough of these healthy microorganisms.  And remember, not all bacteria is bad!

Brianna Elliott is a third year dietetics student.  She has grown a passion for nutrition through her years of studying.  She thinks it is important for people to learn about probiotics and prebiotics because of how healthy they are for the various body systems.  Brianna also contributes regularly to – the web’s leading product and information hub for probiotics.

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