The word probiotics has become heavily ingrained in marketing speak to promote food products that are rich in ‘friendly bacteria'.
These are bacteria which are beneficial for our digestive and immune system health.
But, as scientists have analysed some products and proven them to be pretty low in significant levels of these friendly bacteria (a study carried out on some of the probiotic drinks), manufacturers have turned to prebiotics as a supplement to add to various foods. But is there any real benefit in these prebiotic foods? Or is it just another marketing ploy?
A prebiotic is not the same as a probiotic. Most people now know that a probiotic is a bacteria which is put in yogurt or other dairy products to help it ferment and break down the sugars.
Probiotics are also available in pill or powder forms in a wide array of different bacteria formulas. Many traditionally fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, tempeh and miso are naturally rich in these friendly bacteria.
A prebiotic, however, is different. It is, in fact, a food fibre that occurs naturally in plants, that provides food to maintain and stimulate the growth of the beneficial bacteria in the human colon.
Prebiotics are also very good news as they help your body to absorb and utilise calcium better. As a fibre, prebiotics are much easier to add to foods to enhance them, as they are not as heat and light sensitive as probiotics are, so are much easier to transport and store.
You can get all these benefits straight from the source though, no need to buy any special ‘functional food'.
Foods particularly high in prebiotic fibre include: wholegrains, leeks, onions, asparagus, miso, bananas, garlic and Jerusalem |artichokes.
Fibre can be classified into two types: soluble and insoluble fibre. Both are essential in our diets but play different roles.
All fibre passes through the small intestine unchanged. The enzymes and juices there do not digest food fibres. The insoluble fibres are found in wheat, rye and barley and do not dissolve in water. The bacteria in the colon do not digest or ferment this insoluble fibre.
However, insoluble fibre does retain water and in so doing promotes a larger, softer stool, which is easier to pass. Insoluble fibre is essential to exercise the muscles of the colon, remove dietary cholesterol and help prevent diseases of the colon.
The other type of fibre, soluble fibre, does dissolve in water. As with all fibre, it also goes through the small intestine unchanged.
In the colon, however, soluble fibre is fermented by bacteria. They actually are the fuel for the bacteria's own growth. And this is where the real health benefits occur.
The short version is that our colon is a seething, |fermenting factory of very actively growing bacteria.
They are there for a purpose. When they are properly fed by an adequate amount and by the right types of fibre, certain health benefits occur.
We and our colon bacteria are mutually dependent on each other, a truly symbiotic relationship. We provide them with a moist, warm, oxygen-free environment, and feed them properly with the right kinds of food fibre. They, in turn, provide a very impressive list of health |benefits such as:
Benefits of prebiotics:
• Dramatically increase the number of good bacteria
• These good bacteria then produce acidic substance that our own colon cells use to maintain their own health
• Decrease some of the potentially dangerous bacteria in the colon, such as Candida albicans
• Increase the absorption of calcium and magnesium
• Strengthen the bones and increase bone density
• Maintain a robust immune system in the colon
• Modulate blood sugar
• In animal studies, they seem to turn off signals that can lead to colon polyps and cancer
• Ageing, appetite and weight loss — there is some early research suggesting benefits
• And, yes, they can reduce or eliminate stinky flatulence.
The two prebiotic soluble fibres with the most research behind them are: inulin and oligofructose (FOS). These are found in many plants including chicory root, wild yams and other root vegetables, wheat, onions, garlic, bananas, leeks, artichokes, jicama and agave.
Again, you don't have to rush out and buy special supplements — just pay more attention to your diet.
Another recently described prebiotic is GOS (galacto-oligosaccharide). This is present naturally in breast milk. It is rather remarkable that mother's milk gives the newborn infant the right fibres to get the baby's own colon bacteria growing in the best way.
Otherwise, GOS is made commercially from the milk sugar, lactose.
There is still not a lot of research data available on GOS but it is encouraging up to this point.
It is a fact of life that our diets have changed dramatically in the last 100 years. Our grandparents would simply not recognise what we now call the Westernised diet.
Simply put, food manufacturers and industry now sell “imitation” types of food in boxes, packages and bags, each with dozens of “nutrients” and chemicals added to them.
Our intake of fresh vegetables and fruits has dropped dramatically, while our use of very cheap animal meats has risen in a similar manner.
Additionally, high fructose corn syrup has quietly invaded our lives and intestinal tracts in soft drinks, packaged foods and almost anywhere a sweetener is used.
Along with these monumental changes in the types of food we eat, there has been a dramatic increase in these diseases, all related to the food we eat:
• An epidemic of obesity and diabetes
• Colon diverticulosis
• Colon cancer and polyps
• Ulcerative colitis
• Crohn's disease
• Irritable bowel syndrome
Just a coincidence? I think not! Some may argue that all of this could be just coincidence and not a cause and effect.
However, present research on the colonic bacteria factory and how it thrives when adequate amounts of prebiotic fibres reach it is rather impressive. We know it is good for the otherwise healthy individual and research suggests that it will play a role in addressing some of the above conditions.
While prebiotics are still being researched, they show real health benefits for our digestive health and overall wellbeing.
Prebiotic plant fibre from whole grains, vegetables and fruits should be part of everyone's diet. This is already part of the ‘5 a day' mantra and encouraging people to eat unprocessed foods, so here is another good reason to take heed.
Add plenty of wholegrains such as barley and oats, onions and garlic and you should be well on your way.