Prebiotics and Probiotics for a Healthy Gut Microbiome

In the quest for a healthy gut microbiome, it’s important to understand the similarities and differences between prebiotics and probiotics

KerryDigest Fast Facts:
  • Developing and maintaining a healthy gut microbiome is of growing importance amongst consumers.
  • Consumers and food brands know that some foods and ingredients such as prebiotics and probiotics can contribute to microbiome health.
  • However, there is confusion around the difference between prebiotics, probiotics and fermented foods and how each can contribute to a healthy gut microbiome.
  • This article explains how these ingredients work independently and together to improve gut health.
KerryDigest Full Scoop:

The lining of the gut is covered with microorganisms—including bacteria—which create an ecosystem called the microbiome. The microbiome has acquired a great deal of buzz in recent years due to the vital role it plays in human health, from improving digestion to potentially improving cognition. As a growing number of consumers are learning, the key to achieving a healthy gut microbiome is to have a good balance of bacterial species in the gut. There are two key ways to maintain this balance—through the consumption of prebiotics and probiotics, including those found naturally in some fermented foods and vegetables as well as ingredients that can be added to a range of food and beverage products.

What are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are food constituents that act as a fuel for probiotics. They encourage the growth and colonisation of healthy bacteria in the colon, and in this way they confer a health benefit. Recognised prebiotics include the fibres inulin, galacto-oligosaccharides and fructo-oligosaccharides. Some forms of these prebiotics occur naturally in foods such as pulses, grains, fruits and vegetables. They can also be isolated and produced commercially for use as functional ingredients and supplements.

To be classified as a dietary prebiotic, an ingredient must be:

  • resistant to gastric acidity, hydrolysis by mammalian enzymes and gastrointestinal absorption
  • available for fermentation by the intestinal microflora
  • able to stimulate selectively the growth and/or activity of intestinal bacteria associated with health and wellbeing

 What are Probiotics?

Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when consumed in sufficient amounts, deliver a health benefit. Different probiotic strains have been reported to alleviate infantile colic, treat acute diarrhoea, manage symptoms of constipation, reduce incidence and duration of common illnesses—such as those of the upper respiratory tract or gastrointestinal system—and extend remission of ulcerative colitis. (To document health benefits such as these, human trials must be conducted.)

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The health benefits of probiotic strains differ, even amongst the same species. This is one reason it is important that probiotics are described by their genus, species and strain designations. For instance with the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, Lactobacillus is the genus, rhamnosus is the species and GG is the strain designation. Probiotic products increasingly list the full strain name so that science-minded consumers can find the right probiotic product to address their specific health concerns. In addition to including the correct strain, food and beverage manufacturers working with probiotics must ensure that the probiotic they choose can survive digestion and processing conditions.

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What are Fermented Foods?

Emerging evidence suggests that the live microorganisms present in fermented foods contribute to both gastrointestinal and systemic health. As such, some but not all fermented foods are considered probiotics. Most fermented foods contain microorganisms that were either added as a culture to initiate fermentation or were already present in the starting material. If all microbes are killed before consumption, a fermented food isn’t a probiotic. If live microorganisms still exist when a fermented food is ready for consumption, it must be tested in a human study and be shown to have beneficial effects in order to meet the criteria of a probiotic.

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There’s one other way a fermented food can be considered a probiotic: it is now a common practice to add specific probiotic microorganisms to fermented foods. For example, many commercial yoghurt products now contain probiotic strains of Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. In these applications, the fermented food becomes the delivery vehicle for the probiotic. Although yoghurt is probably the most common fermented probiotic food, products such as beverages with prebiotics, probiotics and fermented ingredients are growing in popularity as dietary supports for a healthy gut microbiome.

To learn more about the key trends driving consumer demand for improved nutrition and digestive health, explore our new infographic and beverage concepts. For more on the science of gut health, see the resources in the Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute's new digestive health toolbox. To discuss the preferred ingredient for your target consumers and unique processing conditions, contact Kerry.

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