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What Is the Importance of Prebiotics in a Diet?

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  • Written By: Dan Harkins
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 24 November 2016
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While probiotics are widely considered the beneficial gut bacteria needed for toxin-free vitality, prebiotics are indigestible dietary materials that feed those probiotic microorganisms and promote their well-being. Available in some grains and vegetables, prebiotics in a diet can promote fermentation in the digestive tract. This triggers a better balance of intestinal flora, which studies have proven can improve immunity ease digestive disorders, lower cholesterol, and potentially lessen the chance of contracting colon cancer.

Without prebiotics, probiotic colonies would not thrive to become as diverse an army of microorganisms as possible, including several dozen species of digestive boons like lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. Prebiotics in a diet serve to activate and optimize probiotic activity. These organisms, with names like oligosaccharides, fructooligosaccharides (FOS), galactooligosaccharides (GOS), inulin and oligofructose, cannot be digested by the human body.

To be considered a prebiotic, a compound must have certain characteristics. The most important of these is its ability to withstand the acidic nature of the stomach. Further, prebiotics in a diet have to be supportive of some or all types of beneficial intestinal flora, promoting the vitality of these organisms through selective fermentation. This action is suspected of helping to detoxify the intestinal tract and release potentially harmful pathogens.

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Probiotics can be added to the diet by increasing intake of yogurt or, for vegans, the other fermented foods that contain them — from pickled vegetables and miso soup to kombucha tea and the meat substitute tempeh. Having prebiotics in a diet means adding other types of foods to the menu, namely artichokes, asparagus, chicory, garlic, leeks, oats, onions, soybeans and wheat. Those who want to optimize their intake of either often turn to store-bought supplements. These can be purchased as a prebiotic complex or a prebiotic/probiotic combination. Consumers are urged to follow the manufacturer's instructions pertaining to proper dosage.

According to a 2009 consumer guide from the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics, the study of beneficial prebiotics have largely been confined to how they stimulate lactobacilli and bifidobacteria action in the intestines. Future study, however, will focus on how other types of prebiotics in a diet could benefit other types of beneficial bacteria. The organization urges consumers to look for confirmed fermentation agents in any supplements they purchase like inulin, FOS or GOS. Other lesser-tested compounds might be included in a supplement, but these are still considered candidates, such as palatinose, polydextrose and sugar alcohols like maltitol or sorbitol.

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