You probably already realize that your intestinal bacteria play an important role in your health. The term, “probiotics,” is found everywhere – in scientific literature as well as at the supermarket. While taking probiotic supplements to support your internal microbiota makes sense, it seems that a healthy intestinal flora needs more than just more inhabants. It also needs bacterial food in the form of prebiotics. Not unexpectedly, prebiotics are found in regular food. However, there is also a dizzying array of prebiotic supplements available. One might ask: are not prebiotic foods enough?

What Are Prebiotics?

In simple terms, prebiotics are nutrients that support the growth of good bacteria in the gut. A more official definition of prebiotics is '' selectively manufactured ingredients that allow specific changes, both in the composition and / or activity in the gastrointestinal microflora that confer benefits upon host wellbeing and health. '' Prebiotics are a relatively new concept, introduced in 1995 .

On a molecular level, most prebiotics are just fiber. In other words, they are indigestible sugar molecules. Because we're unable to digest fiber, it makes its way into the lower part of the intestinal tract where the intestinal flora tear. Most vegetables have high fiber content and are considered prebiotic foods. But, that's the not the only source. Milk is also a source of indigestible sugars, and those are now just being investigated. The most commonly found prebiotics are the vegetable-based inulin and fructo-oligosaccharide (FOS) along with the milk-inspired, synthetic variants called galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS).

Prebiotic Foods

When in comes to prebiotic fiber content, not all vegetables are created equally. Vegetables with high amounts of inulin are agave, chicory, dandelion, garlic, artichokes, onion, yams and leeks. Bananas also contain fair amounts of inulin. FOS is also found in these vegetables as well as in many cereal grains. The bacteria, which are mainly affected by inulin and FOS, are from the Bifidobacteria genus.

Bifidobacteria are some of the most important lactic-acid producing, intestinal bacteria, and they are in many probiotic supplements.

One disadvantage with prebiotic foods is that the general content of prebiotics is low, especially after cooking. For a prebiotic effect, it's recommended that one ingest about 6 grams of inulin fiber. As an example, to get 6 grams of inulin eating raw onions, one would have to eat about 1.8 oz, which is like c cup of chopped onion. From cooked angles, to get the same amount, one would have to consume p pound.

Unfortunately, with our over-processed, modern diets, the average person gets only about a few grams of inulin per day. In contrast, prehistoric, hunter-gather populations are estimated to have consumed 135 grams of inulin per day. They had absolutely no problem getting enough prebiotic foods. Increasing the amount of raw vegetables consumed per day would probably boost the ingestion of inulin to higher than 6 grams. This is a worthy goal for many, and it would provide many more health benefits than just prebiotics.

Prebiotic Supplements

For some, changing the diet may be a sufficient, sole strategy to increasing daily prebiotics. For others, it may not be the best solution for a multitude of reasons. For instance, eating raw vegetables or copious amounts of cooked ones can also be tough for people with a compromised digestive system. Other reasons to choose a supplement over food include their ease, purity and variety.

Those trying to treat a health issue with prebiotics would probably be better served by using a supplement. Studies have shown that individuals with inflammatory bowel disease, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, traveller's diarrhea and low calcium absorption can benefit from prebiotic supplementing ranged from 6-30 grams daily.

There is also the variety issue. Studies with human milk are identifying unique prebiotic sugars, and the widely used GOS is synthetic and not found naturally. While more studies do need to be done to clearly identify the advantages of different types of prebiotics, it is speculated that milk-based prebiotics could have been more powerful and more specific in the strains of bacteria that they promote.

Food vs. Supplements

Determining how to incorporate prebiotics into one's diet is a personal choice. There are clearly many advantages to changing one's diet to include a healthier mix of vegetables and fruits to increase FOS and inulin. Yet, those looking for less fuss or trying to treat a specific health issue might be better helped by prebiotic supplements. A good first step towards making a choice is to determine why you want to improve your intestinal flora in the first place and to seek additional information via a qualified nutritionist.