The terms, probiotic and prebiotic, can be misleading due to the similar spelling. But there’s a world of difference, and it is correct to associate the words with the same general biological process.
Generally speaking, probiotic refers to bacteria that ideally should be in your gut to help with digestion. Prebiotic materials, or even factors, are not bacteria or living organisms.
These factors are biochemical structures, or molecules, that probiotic organisms eat or digest. Humans eat foods containing probiotic organisms and prebiotic materials, and the life cycle continues in your digestive tract.
Probiotic research began in the early 20th century with a Russian scientist, Elie Metchnikoff. He was investigating the aging process in humans and hypothesized that certain intestinal bacteria contributed to aging.
In his research, he discovered positive effects of different bacteria which expanded probiotic research. The simple process of organisms competing against each other for food and survival was not a new idea.
There are two kinds of bacteria most often discussed and used in probiotic research and commercial activities. Lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria are used the most in foods containing probiotics.
Fermented foods can be supplemented with live bacterial cultures to enhance the probiotic benefits and effects. That’s why you’ll see foods using the word, probiotic, on the labels. Yogurts and other dairy products such as Kefir will have probiotics highly visible on their labels.
Prebiotic factors are typically certain types of sugars that humans cannot digest. This is not totally unique for humans and our diet because there are other sugar-based fibers we don’t digest.
Cellulose is one such sugar and is commonly found in plant cellular wall structures. However, cows can digest cellulose and this contributes to milk production.
You can think of these compounds as dietary fiber, if you want. We derive the benefits of fiber precisely because we cannot digest it.
Why Care About Probiotics?
We need bacteria in our guts to digest foods we eat and drinks we consume. The digestive process unlocks all the nutrients your body needs to power all the cells and processes for life. Ultimately, it’s about energy and transferring it from one state to another.
But there’s a never-ending battle taking place in your body and intestinal tract. This war pits beneficial organisms that cause you no harm against harmful bacteria. That’s why it’s important to keep the army of good bacteria stronger than the bad bacteria and yeasts.
Today, research continues on all fronts with probiotics. Scientists want to conclusively prove the specific health benefits. Additional research targets the use of probiotic treatment modalities for different disease states.
However, there are some differing opinions about the health benefits of probiotics. One example concerns the European Food Safety Authority which maintains the health claims of probiotics have no basis in fact.
My personal suggestion is that prebiotics are much better, because they are just natural foods that help your body reproduce the beneficial bacteria in your gut, which then allows your body to rebalance itself. My personal favourite is kiwi fruit as a prebiotic.
If you want to learn more about this fruit and it’s prebiotic properties click here.