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Prebiotics

You may have heard about probiotics and their role in digestive health. But what about prebiotics?  What are they? What are their health benefits? Read on to learn the difference between prebiotics and probiotics and their health benefits.

 

What is the difference between prebiotics and probiotics?

Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that act as “food” for probiotics. Prebiotics help probiotics grow and remain in your digestive system. Not all non-digestible carbohydrates are prebiotics. All prebiotics must meet specific scientific criteria. 

Probiotics are healthy bacteria that naturally live in the colon of our digestive systems. Certain probiotics have been linked to specific health benefits.

 

Types of prebiotics

Common prebiotics include: 

  • Fructo-oligosaccarides (FOS) or fructans and
  • Galacto-oligosaccardes (GOS) 

Inulin is one of the most commonly used types of FOS. 

 

Where are prebiotics naturally found?    

Inulin, a type of FOS is naturally found in: 

Vegetables:

  • Artichoke
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Onion
  • Tomatoes

Grains: 

  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Whole grains

 Roots: 

  • Chicory root
  • Dandelion root
  • Elecampane root

Galacto-oligosaccardes (GOS) is naturally found in:

  • Fermented dairy products like yogurt, buttermilk and kefir
  • Also found naturally in breast milk

           

Prebiotics are also added to: 

  • Bread
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Dairy products like yogurt
  • Sauces and soups
  • Sports drinks
  • Snack bars

 

Where else are prebiotics found?

In Canada, prebiotics may be found: 

  • on their own as a prebiotic supplement
  • in a probiotic supplement
  • in a nutritional supplement or meal replacement
  • in a fibre supplement (containing inulin)
  • in a vitamin, mineral or herbal supplement (typically as inulin or FOS)

If prebiotics are sold as supplements, they are regulated like other vitamin, mineral and nutritional supplements under the Natural Health Product Regulations (NHP Regulations). NHPs require a Natural Product Number (NPN), a Drug Information Number (DIN) or a Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM) in Canada. Check to see your supplement has a NPN, DIN or a DIN-HM number. 

Remember, being regulated does not guarantee that prebiotics are effective. It only means that the product contains what is listed on the label and that they are safe to take.

 

Do prebiotics have health benefits? 

Yes. Prebiotics act as “food” for probiotics which help to keep a healthy balance of bacteria in the digestive system. Eating prebiotic-containing foods often contain fibre and other nutrients. While research is promising, more research is still needed to see if prebiotics are linked to other specific health benefits. If you do not eat foods with prebiotics, you can still have a healthy digestive system by eating a healthy diet. 


How much prebiotics do I need to see a benefit? 

The recommended amount is unknown. Likely, it will depend on a number of things like the strain of bacteria, the health condition you are trying to improve and the types of other bacteria in the colon.

It is also thought that prebiotic supplements or prebiotic-rich foods need to be taken regularly to see any benefits. Taking prebiotics on a regular basis will provide a constant flow of “food” for the helpful bacteria (probiotics) in your digestive system. 

 

Can my child take prebiotics? What about if I’m pregnant? 

Yes. Infants, children and pregnant women can safely consume prebiotic-containing foods and supplements. As with the rest of the population, there are no recommended amounts for infants, children and pregnant women. Speak to your doctor to find out if prebiotic supplements are right for you and your children.

 

Bottom line 

Prebiotics act as “food” for probiotics which help to keep a healthy balance of bacteria in the digestive system. Prebiotic-containing foods often contain fibre and other nutrients. Prebiotics are safe for infants, children, pregnant women and adult men and women. The amount needed to have health benefits is unknown.

While research is promising, more research is still needed to see if prebiotics are linked to other specific health benefits. If you decide to take a prebiotic supplement, check to make sure it has a NPN, DIN or a DIN-HM number. Remember, being regulated does not guarantee that prebiotics are effective. It only means that the product contains what is stated on the label and that they are safe to take. If you do not eat foods with prebiotics, you can still have a healthy digestive system by eating a healthy diet. 

 

You may also be interested in:

The Pros of Probiotics

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Dietitians of Canada acknowledges the financial support of EatRight Ontario by the Ontario government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Province.