What are Prebiotics?

Prebiotic.  Sounds vaguely scientific or healthy, right?  Sort of like “probiotic”, and we know probiotics are supposed to be healthy.  But what exactly does prebiotic mean?  And is it healthy?

Agave - inulin source. Are prebiotic margaritas next?

Prebiotics refers to food components that are allegedly broken down by healthy bacteria (probiotics), thereby making the healthy bacteria happy to be living in your digestive track, resulting in health benefits for you.  I use the term “allegedly” because it’s possible that less desirable bacteria could also break down prebiotics.

Food manufacturers are eagerly adding so-called prebiotics to foods, so that they can brag about them on the label.  The confusing part is that sometimes they’re called “fiber” and sometimes they’re called “prebiotics”.   Whatever you call it, it’s typically inulin, a non-digestible plant food component that can act like fiber in the intestines.  It’s a great choice to add to foods because it dissolves easily and is tasteless.  Hence, those yoghurt ads, where the woman wonders if she has to eat the container to get the added fiber*.

To add to the confusion. anything called fiber is technically prebiotic, since all undigested material can be broken down by bacteria.  So why confuse consumers with the term “prebiotic”?  Because it sounds scientifically healthy?   Is it?  So far, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will not allow food label claims that prebiotics provide health benefits.  The EFSA wants stronger proof of a clear benefit from a clearly defined food component.

In the US, inulin is added to lots of food products that aren’t normally fiber sources, from yoghurt to juices to energy bars.  It’s usually labeled as fiber, rather than prebiotics, probably because “fiber” is better understood by American consumers.  If it’s fiber it must be healthy.  Unfortunately for some consumers, inulin may cause more digestive problems than it solves.  It has a unique composition, which leads to bloating, gas and other problems for susceptible people.  They may not always make the connection between discomfort and that fiber-fortified food they ate a few hours ago.  If you assume fiber is healthy, you might not believe it’s the cause of unpleasant symptoms.  Or, you might not realize you ate fiber in the first place, especially if you consume something like an energy bar or cereal, not realizing the fiber was from inulin rather than whole grains.

So, do you need special prebiotics?  If you’re eating a diet rich in fresh vegetables, fruit and whole grain foods, I don’t think so.  If you think prebiotics and other fiber fortified foods are going to make up for a diet with no fruits, vegetables and whole grains, think again.  There are lots of different fiber types besides inulin.  Limiting your fiber intake to just one form is like limiting your B-vitamin intake to just vitamin B1.  Who would do that?

Here’s a new wrinkle in the food fortification follies: prebiotic pizza.  Yes, have your pizza and eat it too.  In this case, the inulin comes from agave, normally used to make tequila.  Next up: prebiotic margaritas?  I have no doubt that someone is eager to market tequila as a healthy beverage by pumping it full of inulin.  The FDA is unlikely to approve.

*Fiber doesn’t have to be stringy and fibrous to be non-digestible.  There are many types of food fiber, and in their pure state, some look more like gels than strings.

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