What are prebiotics?

While many of the food ingredients we consume are digested immediately, prebiotics are a type of non-digestible fibre compound in the form of food or supplement. Similar to other high-fibre foods, prebiotic compounds pass through the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract and remain undigested, since the human body can’t fully break them down. Once they pass through the small intestine, they reach the colon, where they’re fermented by the gut microflora. This process improves digestion by increasing the level of probiotics in the gut.

What is the role of prebiotics in the body, and how do they differ from probiotics?

In a nutshell, prebiotics help “feed” or fertilise the friendly bacteria (probiotics) and act as their food source to help grow more beneficial bacteria in the gut, having favourable effects on the intestinal flora. Probiotics, on the other hand, are live micro-organisms contained in the food we eat or in the form of supplementation. They remain intact throughout the digestive process, and deliver healthy bacteria directly to the large intestine. Probiotics do not stimulate metabolic activity, and therefore, provide a different set of benefits than prebiotics. Both prebiotics and probiotics are valuable for our health and wellness, and can act symbiotically to provide numerous health benefits.

What happens if we don’t have enough prebiotics?

Because the health of our gut is closely linked to many other bodily functions, prebiotics and probiotics together are important for fighting inflammation and lowering overall disease risk.

Higher intakes of prebiotics are linked to many health benefits, including:

  • lower risk for cardiovascular disease
  • healthier cholesterol levels
  • better overall gut health
  • improved digestion
  • lower stress response
  • better hormonal balance
  • improved mental health
  • higher immune function
  • lower risk for obesity and weight gain
  • lower inflammation and autoimmune reactions

What are examples of prebiotics, and how can we include them in our diet?

Prebiotic compounds are found in foods such as:

  • Garlic – include in homemade salad dressings, marinades, guacamole, dips, spreads and hummus, stir fry’s, risotto, pasta dishes, tea, roasts, soups
  • Jerusalem artichokes – include in dips, antipasto plates, salads, soups, roasts, mash, casseroles.
  • Asparagus – include in salads, risotto, pie filling, pasta dishes, soups, omelettes, scrambled eggs.
  • Leeks – include in risotto, soups, casseroles, bakes.
  • Unripe banana – include in smoothies, homemade baking e.g. muffins, bread, desserts.
  • Dandelion greens – eat them raw by chopping them finely and adding them to a salad or side dish.
  • Onions – best used in savoury dishes and condiments such as sauces, salads, soups, casseroles, pasta dishes, risotto, stir fry’s or grilled on the BBQ.

Please note that prebiotic content in the above food sources are highest in their raw form. However, you still reap the benefits when cooked as well.

Finally, as the need for functional foods rises, prebiotics are being added to many every day food choices such as cereals, biscuits, breads, table spreads, drinks, and yoghurts.