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Prebiotics and Probiotics: Understanding the Difference

Prebiotics and probiotics are becoming well-known for their positive effects on digestive health. But what do these terms mean, and what is the difference between the two?

This article aims to answer this common question and more. We will explain what prebiotics and probiotics are, their potential benefits, and where to find them. Read on for the complete guide.


Prebiotics vs. Probiotics

To explain the difference between prebiotics and probiotics, first, we must discuss what the two terms mean.

Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain beneficial microorganisms. Common examples include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium bacteria and Saccharomyces yeast.

Probiotics help to maintain a healthy gut microbiota, the population of tiny organisms that inhabit the stomach and intestines.


These microscopic creatures play a crucial role in digestive health and may also influence mental function, immunity, and more.

Therefore, having a thriving microbiota has been associated with a host of possible physical and psychological benefits.

Probiotics help by increasing the number and diversity of microorganisms living in the digestive tract. However, they need fuel to function efficiently. This is where prebiotics come into the picture.

Prebiotics are non-digestible components of food, including certain types of fiber and complex carbohydrates. Probiotics generate energy from these molecules by fermenting them inside the gut.

Thus, prebiotics stimulate the growth and activity of these beneficial organisms. The process also creates by-products called metabolites, including short-chain fatty acids and butyrate. These compounds provide further advantages for human health.

What Is the Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics?

The difference between prebiotics and probiotics is vast. Probiotics are living organisms, whereas prebiotics act as their energy source. However, both have an equally important role in digestive health.

It is also possible to get probiotics and prebiotics from food, although their sources are very different.

Probiotics cannot function without prebiotics, and the gut cannot break down prebiotics without probiotics’ help. Therefore, some companies have started manufacturing products that contain the two together. They are known as synbiotics.

It is also possible to get probiotics and prebiotics from food, although their sources are very different. This is just one of many reasons why it is essential to eat a balanced diet. Below are some common examples of prebiotic and probiotic foods.

Prebiotic Foods

As we mentioned earlier, prebiotics are either fibers or complex carbohydrates that our bodies cannot break down. Therefore, they travel through the digestive tract to the gut, where the microbiota puts them to use.

Some examples of prebiotic substances include inulin, oligosaccharides, resistant start, and beta-glucans. However, there are many more.


The most common sources of these compounds are fruit, vegetables, and cereal grains, especially:


  • Bananas
  • Dried fruit
  • Grapefruit
  • Nectarines
  • Watermelon
  • White peaches


  • Asparagus
  • Beans
  • Beets
  • Chicory
  • Fennel
  • Garlic
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Leeks
  • Mushrooms
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Savoy cabbage
  • Seaweed and microalgae
  • Soybeans


  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Wheat


  • Honey
  • Human and cow’s milk

Prebiotics Side Effects

While prebiotic foods are generally good for digestive health, people with IBS should eat them with care. Many examples are high in FODMAPs (fermentable oligo-, di-, monosaccharides and polyols), which can aggravate IBS symptoms in some people.

Possible side effects include bloating, abdominal cramping, gas, and diarrhea. Some of these issues could also affect healthy individuals who overconsume prebiotic foods.

However, generally speaking, it is highly beneficial to include them in one’s diet. Increasing fiber intake steadily to a maximum of 25–30g each day can reduce the risk of unwanted effects.

Probiotic Foods

For a food to be probiotic, it must contain living microorganisms. Therefore, the list of examples is relatively short.

One of the best-known probiotic foods is live yogurt. Another is kefir, a fermented milk drink that originates from Eastern Europe and Western Asia.

Various microbes are also involved in the manufacturing of other fermented foods and beverages, including:

  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Miso
  • Raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar
  • Sauerkraut

Unfortunately, though, not all of them have proven probiotic properties.

One reason for this is that most commercial products undergo pasteurization before being sold. It involves exposing the item to high temperatures to eliminate dangerous pathogens. However, pasteurization kills off beneficial microorganisms too.

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Another issue is that any probiotics remaining in the food may not survive transit through the stomach and intestines. Highly acidic gastric secretions and digestive enzymes can destroy them before they reach the areas where they are most beneficial.

Therefore, a growing number of people are choosing to take probiotic supplements. Manufacturers can now formulate specialized delivery systems that improve probiotics’ survival in the gut.

Product labels should also state the number of colony-forming units (CFUs) in each item. Therefore, consumers know that they are ingesting a set dose of probiotics each day.

More recently, some companies have even started to make probiotic fiber supplements. Much like synbiotics, they combine probiotics and prebiotics, providing broader benefits for digestive health.

Probiotics Side Effects

Most people can take probiotics safely. However, those with severe illnesses or compromised immune systems should exercise caution.

In rare cases, probiotics could cause some adverse effects.

In rare cases, probiotics could cause some adverse effects. These include increasing the risk of infections, promoting harmful substance production, or transferring antibiotic-resistance genes.

Low-quality products could also contain contaminants, including harmful pathogens. Therefore, it is crucial to conduct thorough research and read plenty of reviews before making a purchase. Read our guide to the best probiotics to find out more.

Final Thoughts on Prebiotics and Probiotics

Prebiotics and probiotics work together to aid digestive health and may also contribute to overall improvements in wellbeing.

It is possible to get both from one’s diet, although prebiotic foods are far more common than probiotic ones. Therefore, many people choose to take a daily supplement.

While probiotic, prebiotic, and synbiotic supplements are safe for most people, certain groups should exercise caution. Therefore, it is always best to talk to a dietician or other healthcare provider before use.

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