Food manufacturers are racing to add probiotics and prebiotics to their labels as consumers are clamoring for more immunity and digestive health from the foods they eat. Do you know the difference? Here's how to choose the right ingredients to boost immunity, improve digestive health, and even promote weight loss.

How Probiotics and Prebiotics Each Benefit Your Health Differently

Prebiotics and probiotics play very different roles in your body, and both contribute to better gut health. This is especially essential now since research has shown that over 70% of our body’s immune system resides in the gastrointestinal tract.

Probiotics: Living strains of bacteria that add to the population of good bacteria in your digestive system, which help generate antibodies to boost immunity.

Prebiotics: Plant fiber that acts as food for the good bacteria in the gut. Think of it as feeding the good immunity-boosting microbes to help them grow and outnumber the bad bacteria.

A huge proportion of your immune system is actually in your GI tract, according to a Johns' Hopkins study. The "good" gut bacteria that grows from eating healthy foods and plants create antibodies in our intestines, which helps protect us from bad bacteria in the body.

In a survey of consumers interested in health benefits from the foods they eat, 45 percent of said digestive health was second only to weight loss or weight management (60 percent)  as a priority, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2020 Food and Health Survey. The other high priority was energy (55 percent) and while most people (65 percent) said they perceived probiotics as healthy, almost half of them (45 percent) also perceived prebiotics as healthy. So how do you get both? First, read the labels carefully.

The makers of foods are rushing to add probiotics and prebiotics claims to their labels

The manufacturers have to decide which strain of probiotics to add to foods, and one that can withstand cooking and other processing in the making of your cookies, bars, drinks and other snacks include "Bacillus" species since they have the "broadest range" of resistance to the processing methods (including heat, etc), according to Joanna Wozniak, who works in special projects for Lallemand, in a story published in Food Business News Daily,

Probiotic claims on labels range from improving digestive health and immune health to specific life stages, like children, older consumers, or specific interests, Vanessa Bailey, global marketing lead for DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences, told FBN in an article by Jeff Gelski. “Ultimately, probiotic strains that have been studied clinically can be promoted on food and beverage products as beneficial for digestive health regarding basic aspects of the structure or function of the body,” Ms. Bailey said.

Many probiotic strains don't live up to their claims, says an industry expert

Don Cox, R&D director for the ProActive Health category at Kerry Ingredients and Flavors, says the best practice is for food companies to list the specific strain of probiotic on the label, including its benefits and the research supporting the claim. An impressive 79% of Americans associate probiotics with providing digestive health benefits, according to a Kerry survey, but not all products withstand the test of processing.

“Unfortunately, many products containing probiotics don’t live up to the hype,” Cox is quoted as saying in FBN. “Most consumers don’t fully understand the important distinctions between strains." He added that consumers and food companies need to understand the "value of well-researched ingredients and make choices that support digestive health.”

“As a spore-forming probiotic, GanedenBC30 is highly resistant to extremes of pH, heat, cold, and pressure,” Dr. Cox adds. “It can remain viable through shelf life and the low pH of stomach acid, as well as processing conditions like shear and HPP (high-pressure processing) pasteurization. This resilience means it can be used in an extremely wide range of everyday food and beverage categories, including ready meals, snacks, cereals, energy bars, juices, smoothies, and even peanut butter. The application possibilities are virtually endless.”

In a July article on whether probiotics in foods do what the labels claim, Eran Elinav, an Israeli expert on the microbiome says: "The public, rather than being advertised for claims that are not substantiated, should be told the truth, which is that these products (probiotics) in most cases are not sufficiently proven." And although probiotics in food are a multibillion-dollar industry, the efficacy of the supplements remains unclear in most cases.

"The only reason we can all consume probiotics is that it is regulated not as a medication as it should be, but as a food supplement, and this enables the industry to bypass any sort of medical and scientific overview," Elinav told Xinhua. The journal added: Elinav is a professor in the department of immunology at the Weizmann Institute of Science, where his team has been working for years to gain a better understanding of what probiotics are doing to the human body.

In one experiment where half of the people consumed probiotics and the other half didn't, those who took the probiotics "saw no colonization in their gut. They just came in from one side and came out from the other side," Elinav said.

In another study, the journal reports, Elinav and his researchers were surprised to find that, in some cases, probiotics actually hindered the natural recovery of the natural gut microbes after antibiotic treatment. In response to this finding, the International Probiotics Association (IPA), stated: "just because the intervention did not recover the microbiota under the study conditions, does not mean that probiotics as a whole are ineffective."

Elinav added that the results were inconclusive: "I am not saying that probiotics are a bad idea or probiotics may not necessarily work," he added, concluding that more study is needed.

Prebiotics help probiotics do their job, by feeding the "good" bacteria in the gut

Think of prebiotics as fish food and probiotics as baby fish. The little swimmers need specific fiber in prebiotics to grow and outnumber the bad bacteria in the gut (which grow on animal products and can stimulate the creation of TMAO (or Trimethylamine N-oxide) thought to be a precursor to cardiovascular disease.)  To grow your gut's healthy bacteria such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli and promote healthy digestion, prebiotics help feed the "good" bacteria.

All fiber is good for you. But "prebiotics' are very specific types of fiber, added to food to help probiotics grow. Arrabina is an ingredient that food makers are adding to boost the fiber content of processed foods; it is derived from farm leftovers such as stalks, leaves, and hulls. So you're basically eating the stalks of the food that farmers sell to manufacturers. Husks anyone?

Adding just three grams of prebiotic fiber per serving to products allows food and beverage companies to claim the products support the growth of beneficial microbiota (bifidobacteria) in the gut, according to Loula Merkel, vice president of business development for Comet Bio. Arrabina, a soluble powder made by Comet Bio, has a low viscosity, and up until now, it has been used in supplements and protein powders.

Merkel said she expects Arrabina to find its way into more food and drink products as consumer awareness about the importance of prebiotics continues to grow.

Prebiotics may be enjoying a surge in popularity but they have been around since the turn of the century: Inulin, a type of fiber from chicory root, became popular in the early part of the 21st century to improve digestive health, help control diabetes, and promote weight loss. Plants naturally contain inulin, and some food companies are adding it to their products.

“Studies have shown that 5 grams of chicory root fiber per day not only add fiber... but can also help feed normal beneficial bacteria in the gut,” according to  Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager for Cargill, Minneapolis, as quoted in Food Business News. “Consuming at least 5 grams of chicory root fiber per day supports a healthy microflora in the digestive tract.”

Probiotics and prebiotics are that more in demand because of COVID-19

As more people seek health benefits from every corner due to the current pandemic, companies are eager to meet demand. A survey released in April by FMCG Gurus, a UK market research company, asked 23,000 consumers whether they were more concerned with the immunity benefits of foods they eat because of COVID-19, and 59 percent of North American respondents said they were.

So if you're most interested in probiotics that get into the gut and do the job you want them to do, bolstering your "good bacteria," the best bet is to eat a whole food plant-based diet and skip the processed foods, since there is no guarantee the probiotics in your foods are surviving the processing methods.

Instead choose foods that have naturally occurring probiotics, such as fermented foods such as sauerkraut, pickles, miso, tempeh, kimchi, sourdough bread, apple cider vinegar, and some cheeses. For the probiotics in yogurt, kefir, kombucha check the label and look for naturally occurring ones, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus in yogurt.

For the 12 best foods to eat to naturally get more prebiotics in your diet, read this:

(This list is adapted from a list of prebiotic foods that appeared in Medical News Today.)

  1. Chicory
  2. Jerusalem artichoke
  3. Garlic
  4. Onions and shallots
  5. Leeks
  6. Savoy Cabbage
  7. Chickpeas
  8. Lentils
  9. Kidney beans, baked beans, and soybeans
  10. Bananas
  11. Watermelon
  12. Grapefruit