What are Prebiotics?
Written By Ana Aleksic, MSc Pharm

What are Prebiotics?

Although they sound similar, probiotics and prebiotics are not the same. Even though pro and prebiotics work in concert to promote the health of their host, they are drastically different in form and function.

Probiotics are defined as live microorganisms that confer a health benefit, when administered in adequate amounts, to a host, or those who consume them. Specifically, probiotics are microorganisms, or live bacteria and yeasts, that assist primarily with digestion. The word probiotic means “promoting life”. These microorganisms promote life by maintaining a healthy digestive tract and immune system. Research indicates probiotic use may also provide several health benefits including promoting the health of the reproductive tract, oral cavity, lungs, skin, and gut-brain axis.

When compared to probiotics, prebiotics are not as easily defined or understood. Over the years, the definition of prebiotics has changed. As defined by current research, prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients, when metabolized by intestinal microorganisms, that facilitate changes in the composition and/or activity of intestinal microorganisms. These changes in composition and/or activity may result in potential health benefits appreciated by the host.

Simplistically speaking, prebiotics are ingested food ingredients that facilitate changes in the composition and/or activity in the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. These changes often confer benefits to the hosts well-being and health. Prebiotics are substances that are not digested, rather, they are fermented. Fermentation is the process of converting food products, such as sugars, into acid, gas, or alcohol. The byproducts of fermentation are utilized as an energy source by intestinal bacteria. These byproducts may positively alter the composition of intestinal microorganisms. Essentially, prebiotics can be considered fertilizer for beneficial bacterial growth.

Our gut has several trillions of bacterial strains which confer many health benefits to us. In our current culture, millions of Americans are consuming probiotics to obtain health benefits. However, by consuming probiotics without prebiotics you may not appreciate the benefits probiotics confer to overall health.

Prebiotics may exert benefits on the colon, oral cavity, urogenital tract, and the skin. However, these benefits are in concert with the fermentation process performed by probiotics. The composition of prebiotics and the dose administered is an important factor that influences the fermentation process. The estimated daily dose recommended by the World Health Organization is ~ 5 g. Usually, prebiotics are found naturally in whole grains, fruits, and legumes.

Potential Benefits of Prebiotics:
  • Increase levels of good bacteria, reduction in levels of bad bacteria
  • Enhance absorption and bioavailability of minerals such as calcium and magnesium
  • Improved colon, oral, urogenital, and skin health.


  1. Pourabedin M, Zhao X, Prebiotics and gut microbiota in chickens. FEMS Microbiol Lett. 2015; 362(15):fnv122.
  2. Roberfroid M et al. Prebiotic effects: metabolic and health benefits. Br J Nutr. 2010104 suppl 2:S1-63
  3. Valcheva R, Dieleman LA, Prebiotics: Definition and protective mechanism. Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol. 2016; 30(1):27-37.
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