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What is the Difference between Prebiotics and Probiotics?

There are many different food products that I have been seeing recently that claim to be a “good source” of prebiotics or probiotics. But what exactly are these and what benefits do they provide?

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are nondigestible compounds that essentially act as food for the gut microbiota. They are also known as prebiotic dietary fibers and support digestive health. Some of the health benefits of prebiotics include increases in Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, production of beneficial metabolites, increases in calcium absorption, decreases in protein fermentation decreases in pathogenic bacteria populations decreases in allergy risk, effects on gut barrier permeability, and improved immune system defense (Carlson, Justin L et al). Food sources that naturally contain prebiotics include almonds, bananas, mushrooms, oats, barley, flax, and eggplant to name a few (“Food as Medicine: Prebiotic Foods”). Prebiotic ingredients are added to foods as well, such as beta-glucan, inulin, galactooligosaccharides, isomaltooligosaccharides, guar gum, lactulose, maltodextrin, xylooligosaccharides (Carlson, Justin L et al).

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live microbial supplements that improve microbial balance within the gut. Microorganisms considered probiotics include multiple subspecies in the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species (Kechagia, Maria et al). Probiotics have different effects on the body; however, they can possibly help maintain a healthy community of microorganisms and influence the body’s immune response (“Probiotics: What You Need To Know”). Food sources of probiotics include fermented milk, cheese, ice cream, buttermilk, milk powder, and yogurts. Nondairy sources of probiotics include soy-based products, nutrition bars, cereals, and juices (Kechagia, Maria et al).

How they work together

Prebiotics and probiotics tend to work together to maintain adequate gut health. Prebiotics will act as “food” for the gut microbiomes. Prebiotics and probiotics can be taken as a supplement form. It is important to discuss if these supplements would be beneficial to you from your primary care physician.

Recent research with pre and probiotics

Prebiotics have been shown to help alleviate constipation and improve irritable bowel syndrome symptoms (Carlson, Justin L et al). There is positive research regarding probiotics, including reducing symptoms of gastrointestinal conditions, reduction of dental caries, especially in children, and reduction of upper respiratory infections to name a few (“Probiotics: What You Need To Know”).


  1. Carlson, Justin L et al. “Health Effects and Sources of Prebiotic Dietary Fiber.” Current developments in nutrition vol. 2,3 nzy005. 29 Jan. 2018, doi:10.1093/cdn/nzy005

  2. “Food as Medicine: Prebiotic Foods”. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia website. Updated December 21, 2022. Accessed June 5, 2023.

  3. Kechagia, Maria et al. “Health benefits of probiotics: a review.” ISRN nutrition vol. 2013 481651. 2 Jan. 2013, doi:10.5402/2013/481651

  4. “Probiotics: What You Need To Know”. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Updated August 2019. Accessed June 5, 2023.


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