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Prebiotics vs. Probiotics: What Is the Difference Between the Two?

Photo by: Yasmina Haryono (Flickr)

Kefir is an excellent way to get both your prebiotics and probiotics!

There is tremendous debate surrounding the benefits of prebiotics and probiotics in a person's overall health care routine. This debate is also fueled by the media, which commercializes health benefit claims associated with eating yogurt every day or taking probiotic pills, for example. To understand whether prebiotics and probiotics should be incorporated into your diet, you must ask an important question: "What are probiotics and prebiotics?" I'm going to answer that and discuss the prebiotic vs. probiotic debate to help you.


Let's begin with prebiotics because they are fuel for probiotics. In all honesty, there really isn't any prebiotic vs. probiotic debate. One is not better for you than the other is. Rather, the two work in tandem: P rebiotics support the effectiveness of probiotics. Prebiotics feed probiotics -- they're the fuel for the probiotics that help probiotics grow, and you'll see why this is a good and necessary thing in the probiotics section below.

Prebiotics are classified as non-digestible carbohydrates, and they are found naturally in artichokes, bananas, garlic, honey, onions, and whole grains. When you mix a prebiotic with a probiotic, you create a synbiotic, or a synergy between the prebiotics and the probiotics. This synergy is the prebiotic feeding the probiotic so your body will reap the benefits of the probiotic. This synergy is also what causes the fermentation process of foods like yogurt and kefir. Yogurt and kefir contain both probiotics -- or live bacteria -- and the prebiotics to feed them.


Now it's time for me to answer the probiotic part of the "what are probiotics and prebiotics" question. As I alluded to above, probiotics are bacteria. Why would you need bacteria? Well, there are good bacteria and bad bacteria, and both are naturally found in the human body. You already have probiotics in your system, and they are there to balance out the bad bacteria. In some cases, however, your body's natural bacteria might be out of balance, and that is when it's time to add some probiotics, mixed with prebiotics, to balance the good with the bad.

Probiotics are found in yogurts and kefir because they are added to the product with the prebiotics to keep them active for ingestion. Probiotics are also found in supplements, but there is a debate as to the efficacy of these supplements because the probiotics are placed in a state of suspended animation to keep them "alive." Remember, probiotics need prebiotics to live, so it is important to choose a product that is synbiotic, containing both.

Aside from the debate over the efficacy of probiotic supplements, the other debate surrounding probiotics and prebiotics is whether they actually help us out at all. Although many health professionals would like to see more research on probiotics and prebiotics, the initial findings are encouraging and suggest that active probiotics:

  • Reduce antibiotic side effects, including diarrhea and yeast infections

  • Aid in the treatment of chronic urinary tract infections

  • Reduce irritable bowel syndrome symptoms

  • Help prevent recurrence of bladder cancer

  • Improve cases of eczema in children

  • Help us get better when we have the cold or the flu

This is promising considering that these natural elements are already found in our bodies. Eating a carton of plain yogurt -- sorry, the sugary yogurts defeat the purpose of the probiotics -- is much like eating an apple a day. Probiotics fueled by prebiotics just might keep the doctor away!

So, prebiotics vs. probiotics: What's the difference between the two? Really, nothing. Prebiotics are a naturally occurring carbohydrate found in many healthy foods; probiotics are a naturally occurring good bacteria found in our bodies. The two work together to ensure our bodies remain healthy, strong, and able to fight against illness.

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