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Prebiotics Vs. Probiotics: What's the Difference?

The reason for confusion is pretty obvious. Not only do the words differ by only one letter, but they target similar benefits: improving overall health by improving digestive health through nourishing a healthy colon.

 
PRLog - Oct. 13, 2009 - Here is a summary of the differences, with more detail following:

1. Prebiotics are a very special form of dietary fiber.   Probiotics are living bacteria intended to benefit colon health.

2. Prebiotic Fiber is not affected by heat, cold, acid or time. Probiotics can be killed by heat, acid or simply the passage of time.

3. Prebiotics nourish the thousands of good bacterial species already living in the colon.    Probiotics contain from one to a few species of bacteria which are added to the colon when they are ingested (eaten).

4. Prebiotic Fiber is a naturally-occurring substance, found in thousands of plant species (though mostly in very small amounts).   Probiotics occur naturally in fermented foods like yogurt or sauerkraut.

5. Prebiotics foster an environment in the colon which is hostile to bad bacteria.   Probiotics may impact bad bacteria by crowding them out.

6. The benefits of prebiotics are supported by extensive research. The benefits of probiotics are supported by extensive research

7. BOTH Prebiotics and Probiotics must be ingested in sufficient quantity to have an impact, and should not carry an excessive "load" of sugar, calories, carbs, etc.

Now, let's discuss these in a bit more detail:

1. Prebiotics are a very special form of dietary fiber. Probiotics are living bacteria supposedly beneficial to the colon

Prebiotics are nondigestible substances that pass through the stomach and small intestine unchanged. Thus far only two fructooligosaccharides: oligofructose and inulin, fully meet the complete medical definition of "prebiotic". The compound created from merging these two prebiotics together is called Oligofructose-Enriched-Inulin and is considered a "full-spectrum" Prebiotic.

Some foods presented as "prebiotics" in and of themselves simply contain prebiotics. For example we often see honey presented as "a prebiotic," while it is more accurate to simply say that honey contains a small amount of prebiotics (as do many other foods).

Prebiotics enter the colon where they nourish beneficial bacteria. The beneficial bacteria, typically within the hundreds of strains under the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacter families, create many health benefits through their action in the colon.

Probiotics are supplements that contain living organisms: bacteria. They typically contain anywhere from one to a few strains. Once consumed and in your system, the bacteria are just "bacteria" not "probiotics." However, for simplicity's sake, we will occasionally refer to the bacteria themselves as "probiotic"

2. Prebiotic Fiber is not greatly affected by heat, cold, acid or time. Probiotics can be killed by heat, acid or simply the passage of time.

Prebiotics benefit from their simplicity. They are, simply, very special fibers that nourish the good bacteria. Because of this, they are pretty impervious to damage. Heat does not greatly harm them. They don't "die" just from the passage of time. Acid does not harm or degrade them.

Probiotics by contrast are living organisms. If they are dead when they reach your colon, they cannot provide any health benefit.  Probiotics must not be subjected to excessive heat during transport and warehousing. They should typically be refrigerated to ensure the bacteria remain relatively dormant and don't die simply from "old age". And the bacteria can be killed by acid, such as found in the human stomach.

3. Prebiotics nourish the thousands of good bacterial species already living in the colon. Probiotics contain from one to a few species of bacteria which are added to the colon.

Your colon contains trillions (with a "T"!) of bacteria - more than all the 'human' cells in your body. More than all the stars in the milky way galaxy. It is a number possibly too big to really comprehend. In fact, it is likely that each person's colon "microbiota" is as unique as fingerprint.

Prebiotics nourish all the good bacteria in the colon, particularly in the lacto- and bifido- families, preserving your "fingerprint".

Probiotics typically contain a few, or even just one, strain of bacteria. These bacteria are typically from the same bifido- and or lacto- families, but may or may not match your particular microbiota.

4. Prebiotic Fiber is a naturally-occurring substance. Probiotics occur naturally in fermented foods like yogurt or sauerkraut. Some companies have also engineered "proprietary" bacteria which they have patented and promote in their probiotic supplements/foods.

Both prebiotics and the bacteria in probiotics are naturally-occurring substances. Prebiotics have been identified in over 36,000 plant species. The good bacteria contained in probiotic supplements naturally occur in fermented foods such as Kefir and Sauerkraut (though they are almost certainly destroyed if those foods are pasteurized..)

Additionally, some companies have now both trademarked and patented their "own" bacteria. Trademarked bacteria are naturally occurring strains not "owned" by the company, but they have given them a 'consumer friendly' name which that company uses instead of the actual scientific name. So if you see a product that says it has "Defensis Maximus" bacteria... It's likely just a strain of Lactobacillus with a fancy name.

Patented bacteria are actually engineered by a company from naturally occurring bacteria. Because they are now a "proprietary" strain, that company can then patent and "own" that strain of bacteria.

5. Prebiotics foster an environment in the colon which is hostile to bad bacteria. Probiotics may impact bad bacteria by crowding them out.

Prebiotics create an important secondary impact in the colon. By nourishing the good bacteria, they induce these bacteria to create Short-Chain-Fatty-Acids. These SCFAs slighly lower the pH of the colon, creating an environment that is friendly to good bacteria, but inhospitable to bad bacteria.

Probiotics may also achieve this by crowding out 'bad' bacteria, but may also suffer from 'drop in the bucket' scenario: while "X Billion" may sound like a lot of bacteria, adding them to "X Trillion" of existing bacteria likely means an addition of 0.1% or less... IF they all survive!

6. The benefits of probiotics and prebiotics are supported by extensive research.

Prebiotics have been extensively researched since their identification in 1995. This research has typically been done at research-oriented universities, often in Europe where awareness of prebiotics is highest. A good summary of this research is available at http://www.prebiotin.com.

Probiotic benefits are also extensively researched.  Also frequently in the food science department of leading universities. A good source of research is pubmed.org, seaching for "probiotic".

7. Both Prebiotics and Probiotics must be ingested in sufficient quantity to have an impact, and should not carry an excessive "load" of sugar, calories, carbs, etc. out of proportion to their benefit.

Many authorities suggest 4g to 8g of prebiotics daily. Some researchers suggest significantly higher servings daily for those with active digestive disease - 15g daily or more.

There is truly no authoritative guideline about effective levels of probiotics. Manufacturers suggest anywhere from 5 MIL CFUs to 500 BIL CFUs, with 50 BIL CFUs being the largest commonly-seen serving size.

One area where BOTH prebiotics and probiotics are the same is that they must not bring excess calories, carbs, sugar, fat or other undesirables to the dietary mix. Probiotics often come in heavily-sugared yogurts and similarly, prebiotics sometimes arrive via a "fiber bar" with chocolate icing, lots of sugar, etc.

Anything that delivers 25% of your daily pro-/prebiotic need but 60% of your daily sugar limit isn't a "good deal." Prebiotics and probiotics are both available in a supplement format with virtually no "overhead" of calories, sugar, etc.

# # #

Jackson GI is dedicated to being a responsible provider of nutritional supplements. We back our product with third-party medical research, and emphasize no-nonsense, no-hype educational materials on our site.

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