An Introduction to Prebiotics and Probiotics

An Introduction to Prebiotics and Probiotics

Prebiotics beckon as much respect as the mighty probiotic and without a proper rapport between the two, neither is at its best. Each literally needs the other as they work congruently in the gut to optimize pH, improve nutrient absorption and promote appropriate immune response.

What is a Probiotic?

The term probiotic literally translates to "for life." The World Health Organization's 2001 definition of probiotics states they are live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. Probiotics are found in dairy foods like yogurt, cottage cheese, kefir, buttermilk; and in fermented foods like sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and kombucha.

There was new research published in the June 2013 edition of The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism that discusses the improved circulating levels of Vitamin D with the dietary addition of the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri. This is just one of the many probiotics available to us in foods.

What is a Prebiotic?

Prebiotic refers to a typically non-absorbable, naturally-occurring carbohydrate-like fructo-oligo-saccharide, also known as FOS. These are found in whole grains like oats and wheat, legumes, jicama and in fermented foods, like sauerkraut and kefir. Prebiotics are also found in fresh foods like fruits, especially banana, sweet potatoes, asparagus, fresh dandelion greens, radicchio and endive. Fructo-oligosaccharides are more soluble than another type of prebiotic called inulin and are, therefore, sometimes used as an additive to yogurt and other dairy products. Fructo-oligosaccharides are used specially in combination with high-intensity artificial sweeteners.

In the colon, prebiotics release short-chain fatty acids. These short-chain fatty acids alter the pH of the colon and enhance absorption of minerals, including calcium, iron and magnesium. The altered pH also increases probiotic survival.

There is also inulin, which belongs to a class of naturally-occurring carbohydrates called fructans that are typically found in roots and rhizomes; specific plant foods that contain high concentrations of inulin include: agave, banana, burdock, camas, chicory, coneflower (echinacea), costus, dandelion greens, elecampane (inula), garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, jicama, arnica montana, mugwort, onion, wild yam, yacon.

For some individuals, inulin is poorly tolerated and may only be introduced in very small amounts, if at all. This is especially important for those who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome. For those individuals, a special low FODMAP diet was developed in recent years. Your Dietitian can help you with details of this specialized exclusion diet.

There exists no set number or type of good bacteria that any particular human should have in their gut to be healthy. However, the information and research are clear: optimizing a variety of probiotics and ensuring a regular intake of prebiotics to support the probiotics can improve one’s overall health.

Take note, just about every food mentioned in this article has been in one or more recipes listed in our Recipes section and in the NutriBullet Natural Healing Foods book. With a little grocery list planning, there can be plenty of pre- and probiotics in your daily fixins'!

Recipe of the Day

  1. On a paper plate, place a medium sweet potato in the microwave.
  2. Cook completely until softened, about 5 minutes.
  3. Place potato (including the skin) into your NutriBullet cup with organic low-sodium vegetable broth, a pinch of turmeric, a pinch of white pepper, and salt to taste (usually less than a ¼ pinch).
  4. Of course you can add onion, garlic, parsley, and other flavors. However, simple and fast is just fine.
  5. Blend and pour into a soup cup. Heat a little more if necessary.


Registered Dietitian, Licensed Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator

Comment by CoachAnn
November 22, 2013
Wonderful article and great info. The recipe also sounds delicious - however, I try to avoid microwaving food. I would bake the potato in the oven instead to preserve all the nutritional value.
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