In recent years, we have all heard about probiotics and how important they are for gut health. Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that roam around the large intestine and keep digestion humming along. Enterprising health companies have capitalized on the need to replace these bugs in human guts thanks to antibiotic use and, to an extent, pasteurization of just about all foods which kills ALL bacteria good or bad, so we know a lot about PRObiotics. (We also know that in addition to commercial sources they are available in many fermented foods.) What we don’t always know about, but is equally important, is PREbiotics.
What are prebiotics? Prebiotics are the fibrous substances on which probiotics feed to stay alive. They have fancy scientific names like “resistant starch” and “inulin,” but really, they are some of the beneficial parts of a number of our favorite foods: the fibrous starch that makes it through the digestive process all the way to the large intestine pretty much intact, for the good bacteria (specifically bifidobacteria and lactobacilli) to eat. To wit:
- Chicory root
- Dandelion greens
- Jerusalem artichokes
Natural foods containing prebiotics are best consumed raw for the prebiotic benefit. While some of the prebiotic fibers are maintained through cooking, they are greatly diminished. There are other ways of getting prebiotics in the diet, though. Prebiotic fibers are added to low-fat yogurt and salad dressings, but have been processed. There are also commercial products that can be consumed alongside probiotics.
How much prebiotics do the probiotics need to stay alive? That question is currently being studied. But a bit of these foods every day is beneficial in more ways than one. It seems that their presence helps the absorption of calcium and thus improves mineral and bone density. There is also some evidence which is currently being studied that prebiotics, particularly inulin, have a protective effect regarding cancer.
Studies on the total effect of preobiotics on human gut health and the possibility of using prebiotics in the treatment of disease are ongoing, but there is no mistaking that the good bacteria need their food. And it’s pretty easy to get it through diet, too.