What are Prebiotics? - Probiotics
carrots and onions stacked together

What are Prebiotics?

Probiotics are important and, thanks to effective marketing and education over the past decade, it’s obvious to most people that these friendly bacteria provide a host of benefits for the gut, brain, immune system and more. But they’re not the whole story. As it turns out, prebiotics are just as important for whole body wellness. But what are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that serve as food for probiotics. Typically found in high-fiber foods such as whole grains, bananas, greens, onions, garlic, soybeans and artichokes, prebiotics are necessary for probiotics to grow and multiply[1]. The problem? Most people don’t get enough fiber, or the variety of fibers needed to feed a diverse community of bacteria, which is emerging as the key to a healthy microbiome.

Better Together

Prebiotics and probiotics are better together. But research also touts the benefits of prebiotics on their own. These include healthy weight management, supporting regular bowel movements and improving the bioavailability of minerals.[2] When paired with probiotics, prebiotics have been shown to improve the survival of probiotics as they pass through the digestive tract and support the growth of probiotics.

The good news is that it’s fairly easy to boost the diet with prebiotics, and that there are an increasing number of prebiotic supplements out there, as well as probiotic supplements that also contain prebiotics (because, indeed, they are better together). Unlike probiotics, they’re generally very stable and they are able to survive the body’s stomach acid and enzymes en route to the gut’s bacteria. That’s why you can find prebiotic ingredients in almost every food category, from bars and baked goods to frozen yogurt and ice cream.

While it is possible to supplement with two products–a prebiotic and a probiotic–keep an eye out for next generation products called synbiotics. Synbiotics contain both live bacteria and prebiotics together, to give the gut what it needs in one product. The idea is that by feeding the bacteria the food they love at the moment of supplementation, they can multiply, grow and support overall wellness. According to research from Johns Hopkins, children between ages 1 and 4 who drank milk fortified with both probiotics and prebiotics (a mix known as synbiotics) daily for one year got sick significantly less often than children who drank unfortified milk.

[1] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/expert-answers/probiotics/faq-20058065
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4648921

This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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Do I need both a probiotic and a prebiotic? How do I take them?

Yes. Supplementing with probiotics will re-introduce bacteria into the gut. However, this effort is futile without prebiotics, which feed the bacteria and ensure that they flourish. If you are new to probiotics, try supplementing every day to establish a healthy colony. But once it’s up and running, supplementing with prebiotics is critical to keeping bacteria healthy over time. Maintain health by supplementing with both prebiotics and probiotics regularly in order to keep the existing bacteria population intact.


What does the “CFU” number mean?

Most supplements are measured in milligrams. Probiotics, on the other hand, are measured in CFUs (Colony Forming Units). This refers to the amount of viable, live bacteria that are capable of dividing and forming colonies. CFU counts are generally stated in billions.


Do I need probiotic supplements if I eat yogurt?

Yogurt may be a healthy snack choice but, bacteria-wise, it doesn’t necessarily measure up to a comprehensive probiotic supplement. First, yogurt may not be as probiotic-rich as you think. Many yogurts on supermarket shelves are heat-treated (pasteurized) to give the products a longer shelf life which, unfortunately, kills off the live cultures. Plus, while most yogurt contains just three strains of probiotics, many supplements offer more. Finally, foods just don’t seem to have the amount of probiotics necessary to provide the benefits that supplementation can.