Prebiotics 101

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(HealthCastle.com) Chances are that you have seen words like "prebiotics" or "inulin" on the packaging of your cottage cheese, cereals, or even beverages. Are they really worth paying extra money for?

What are Prebiotics?

Not to be confused with probiotics, prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that selectively stimulate the growth and activity of certain beneficial bacteria that reside in your gut. The most common prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates such as:

  • inulin
  • fructooligosaccharides (FOS)
  • galactooligosaccharides (GOS)

Benefits of Prebiotics – How does the evidence stack up?

In many studies, mineral absorption (calcium in particular) has been shown to be enhanced with prebiotics. In a new study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in March 2010, researchers from the University of Reading in the UK noted an increase in the count of beneficial bacteria, such as Bifidobacteria, in the digestive tracts of participants who took shots containing Jerusalem artichoke inulin. In an early study published in 1997 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, lead researcher Dr. Kleesen found an improvement in bowel consistency and frequency in constipated participants.

Many other benefits have been documented for prebiotics, but they are more noticeable for seniors, infants, and adults with illnesses. For healthy adults, the benefits of adding prebiotics to the diet are not as significant according to current research.

How Much is Recommended?

Currently, no recommended level of intake for prebiotics has been established. However, the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics has documented a prebiotic effect by consuming 5 to 8 grams of FOS or GOS per day. The typical Western diet provides about 1 to 4 grams per day, so there is room for including more prebiotics. Intake higher than 10 grams per day, however, may cause side effects such as bloating and increased flatulence.

Prebiotics in Natural Foods

Some prebiotics can be found naturally in these foods:

  • onion
  • asparagus
  • garlic
  • shallots
  • leeks
  • banana
  • wheat
  • oat
  • chicory root
  • Jerusalem artichoke

The Bottom Line

To reap the benefits shown above, you don't need to buy prebiotics-enhanced foods. You may simply increase your intake of foods rich in calcium and Vitamin D to increase calcium absorption, consume foods with added probiotics to increase the count of beneficial bacteria in your gut, or simply increase fiber and fluids in your diet to alleviate constipation. Before you rush out to the stores to buy prebiotics-enhanced foods, you may want to try eating more foods that are naturally rich in prebiotics, such as onions, bananas, and asparagus, which also offer other health benefits.

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