Prebiotics: Food for Good Bacteria
Clarified 8/3/07: An earlier version of this story misspelled inulin. It also referred to Lori Hoolihan of the Dairy Council of California by a surname she no longer uses.
No, that supplement manufacturer didn't misspell "probiotics." "Prebiotics" are a separate category of food additive that are supposed to help probiotic bacteria grow and thrive in the human digestive tract. Probiotics, in turn, help people stay healthy, recent research shows.
"You can consider prebiotics the food for probiotics," says Lori Hoolihan, a nutrition research specialist with the Dairy Council of California. In addition to helping probiotics deliver their potential benefits, she says, prebiotics play an independent role in intestinal health by enhancing mineral absorption.
While probiotics are living organisms, prebiotics are nutrients and compounds that occur naturally in foods like soybeans, some grains, and dairy products. Manufacturers also sometimes add prebiotics to foods and supplements. To find a food containing prebiotics, you can look for the words "fructan," "oligosaccharide," "resistant starch," or "inulin" on the label.
Hoolihan notes that if you get probiotics from foods like yogurt, you also automatically get prebiotics, as well as a variety of vitamins and minerals that work synergistically in the body. A probiotic food, she says, "is a package of nutrients that comes together."