Jerusalem artichokes as an example of a prebiotic fiber.

Enhancing Gut Health: The Power of Prebiotics

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This is part one of a two-part series on prebiotics and probiotics for gut health.

Prebiotics are having their moment thanks to a number of new food products on the market.

The lesser-known little sibling to probiotics, prebiotics can also be beneficial to the microbiome and a healthy inclusion in your diet. But with so many products with added prebiotics, there is room to question them as additives.

What Prebiotics Are And What They Do

If probiotics are the race cars of the gut, prebiotics are the gasoline. They literally fuel bacteria because bacteria in the microbiome use them as a food source.

Prebiotics are plant fibers naturally found in small amounts in a number of foods but they cannot be digested or absorbed. And while they cannot be broken down by stomach acid or digestive enzymes, they are fermented in the gut by the microbes there.

This fermentation creates short-chain fatty acids, which can assist in improving irritable bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

Prebiotics have been found in studies to increase beneficial types of gut bacteria such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, therefore restoring balance within the microbiome.

Studies have also shown that consuming prebiotic foods may help enhance the bioavailability and absorption of minerals.

The Many Types of Prebiotics

There are many different kinds of prebiotics but the most important ones to know about are the ones most commonly found in foods.

Fructans include inulin and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and are water-soluble. They are the most widely used prebiotics and are found in the largest range of foods. Inulin is one of the more common prebiotics added to enriched foods. 

Fructans have been found to improve resistance to pathogens in the gut, decrease allergies, and help regulate immune response.

Another kind of prebiotic is called galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), which can be derived from lactose. They can be especially beneficial for constipation, as well as colicky babies, and are therefore often supplemented in baby formula.

A third type of prebiotic is resistant starch, which is unique in its production of butyrate. A short-chain fatty acid, butyrate supports the body’s ability to absorb water and electrolytes and strengthens the cell walls of the gut.

If you make your own jams and jellies, you may already be familiar with another kind of prebiotic, pectin.

Pectin is most commonly known for naturally occurring in many fruits, like berries and apples, and it is the starch that gives a jelly-like quality when the fruits are cooked. This prebiotic can have anti-inflammatory effects and may help with diarrhea.

Which Prebiotics Assist With Which Probiotics

Although we generally think of all prebiotics as fueling all probiotics, they work more specifically than that.

Certain probiotic strains tend to multiply from particular types of prebiotics, and there are some prebiotics that are able to feed many bacterial strains.

FOS and inulin are associated with most strains, including many Bifidobacterium and Coproccus types. GOS are mostly associated with Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains. Pectin fuels some strains of Bifidobacterium, as well as Faecalibacterium. Resistant starch is mainly only associated with Agathabacter and Roseburia.

If you intend to supplement, knowing what strains of bacteria you may be deficient in is the best way to choose your prebiotics. This can help you target your supplementation for your needs and avoid fueling bacteria that could worsen any symptoms you experience.

Foods Rich in Prebiotics

The good news is that the prebiotics in foods tend to stand up to heating, chopping, blending, freezing, and just about anything you can throw at them. After all, if they can make it through your digestive system, what’s a little heat?

Perhaps one of the foods most famous for containing lots of prebiotics is Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, which are high in inulin. (They are also delicious in a soup or roasted.)

Chicory root and dandelion greens also contain high amounts of inulin.

For FOS, try asparagus (which also has inulin), bananas, onion, garlic and leeks. The FOS used to enrich foods often comes from agave.

Besides breast milk, GOS is highest in beans and legumes like black beans, lima beans, and lentils. Although less so, it is also in beets and gluten-containing grains like wheat and barley.

Pectin is found in a number of fruits, such as apples, raspberries, peaches, and apricots. It is also found in tomatoes, carrots, and green beans.

The resistant starch in potatoes is a funny thing because it is at its highest once you cook the potatoes and then allow them to chill. (Think potato salad!) But that resistant starch is also in beans, sweet potatoes, plantains, oats, brown rice, and barley.

The Risks of Prebiotics

Because prebiotics are not digestible and because, by nature, they ferment in the gut, some people can experience gas, bloating, and/or diarrhea. If prebiotics are newer to your diet, it can be best to start out with small amounts to see how you react before increasing your intake.

This is especially true if you are supplementing or trying enriched foods for the first time.

Also, these symptoms can be more likely if you already suffer from IBS or SIBO.

If you are following a low-FODMAP diet or the Bi-Phasic Diet, prebiotics are usually not recommended, because of the fermentation in the gut.

What About All Those Prebiotic Sodas?

Prebiotic and probiotic soda.

As with any nutrient, the best way to go is of course to get them from the foods where they would naturally occur. We know that these nutrients often work synergistically with other nutrients in the foods where they are naturally found. This may not be the case when the isolated nutrient is added to another food.

There are so many foods that contain prebiotics that it almost seems silly to buy foods that they’ve been added to, especially processed foods.

You can find prebiotics added to packaged yogurts, protein bars, and powders, smoothies, and gummies for kids. But perhaps the most popular right now is prebiotic soda.

There are a number of prebiotic sodas on the market: Olipop, Poppi, not to mention a number of store brand options. And they all tout health benefits and push these alternatives to traditional sodas.

Are they good for you? Are they better than soda? Should you be drinking them?

The short answer is that you probably won’t notice much benefit so you don’t need to go out of your way to add them to your routine. But if you do drink soda that is laden with sugar, or worse, artificial sugar alternatives, prebiotic sodas may offer a better option.

It is important to note that all prebiotic sodas are different with varying ingredients and dosages. Some use sugar, others contain stevia, monk fruit or fruit juice.

The source of the prebiotics also varies. Poppi contains agave inulin and Olipop has a mix of inulin from chicory root and Jerusalem artichoke as well as cassava root fiber.

Nearly all of them contain flavorings to obtain the taste of fruits, vanilla, cola, or root beer. And unfortunately, flavoring is a vague term that can cover many types of ingredients.

The amount of prebiotics can range from just 2 grams to closer to 10 grams or more.

On the low end, you definitely won’t see much benefit since this amount is considered too low to seriously affect the gut. But if your drink is on the higher end, especially if you’re drinking more than one per day, you may be doing more harm than good.

Even if you aren’t someone who experiences bloating, gas, or diarrhea from prebiotics, too much of certain types may actually negatively impact your health.

High dosages of inulin have been found to promote inflammation or damage the liver.

Prebiotic Foods Before Prebiotic Sodas

A foundational concept in holistic nutrition is food first and prebiotics are no exception. Although prebiotic sodas can occasionally be a fun alternative to traditional sodas, they do not deserve a place in your regular diet.
There are so many delicious ways to get a prebiotic boost to your microbiome naturally from foods. Eating or drinking enriched foods is not a better option.

To prepare some prebiotic foods, try this Butternut Squash Salad with apples, this Moroccan Chicken with apricots, or this Root Veggie Mash with loads of onions and garlic.

If you’d like to learn more about gut health and holistic nutrition, you can check out Nutrition Therapy Institute’s program to become a Nutrition Therapist Master. Want to know more about the program and what you can expect? Sign up now for an informational webinar.

READ MORE >>> Enhancing Gut Health: Probiotics for the Microbiome

About the author: Maya Strausberg earned her Master Nutrition Therapist certification from NTI before starting her nutrition therapy private practice. She now offers writing and editing services for nutritionists and other health practitioners around the world through her business, Family Tree Nutrition.

Images: Image by silviarita from Pixabay; Photo by Pradeep Javedar on Unsplash

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