What is Probiotic, What is Prebiotic, and Why People Should Care

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What is prebiotic nutrition? What is a probiotic yogurt (or “probiotic yoghurt”, for those who use the longer spelling)? Does “post-biotic” mean anything? Do any of them really improve health?

What is Probiotic Nutrition?

Probiotics are living bacteria found in some foods. They survive the digestive process and then live in the human intestine, providing some health benefits.

Some refer to any surviving ingested microbe as “probiotic”, including any harmful ones killed when milk is pasteurized.

B. Roberts of Penn State University gives some examples of probiotic foods. They include fermented milk products such as kefir and some probiotic yogurts, and non-dairy foods like miso, sauerkraut, and tempeh. (Miso and tempeh are soybean products, as is “soyogurt”. One wonders whether the probiotics in tempeh survive frying).

What Makes Some Yogurt Probiotic?

Note that not all yogurt is “probiotic”. Most yogurt uses Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus bacteria, which do not survive digestion.

What makes a particular yogurt probiotic? Probiotic yogurt uses one or more of Lactobacillus caseii, Lactobacillus reutri or the Bifidum family.

what is Prebiotic Nutrition?

Prebiotic nutrients are non-living components of food. These components are of benefit to the person but only when “digested” by intestinal bacteria.

The UN FAO (“United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization”) defined prebiotic in 2007: “A prebiotic is a non-viable food component that confers a health benefit on the host associated with modulation of the microbiota”.

One example of a prebiotic nutrient is inulin, a naturally occurring polysaccharide found in burdock, chicory and Jerusalem artichoke. Other prebiotics are certain non-soluble fibers.

What does Post-Biotic Mean?

Only rarely does “post-biotic” refer to the useful chemicals produced by the beneficial, probiotic bacteria. One research request began a sentence, “Evaluating the use of probiotics, such as Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium, and post-biotics, such as conditioned medium, or specific bacterial products, such as butyrate…”.

The word “post-biotic” usually refers to periods of time, rather than kinds of nutrition. “Post” means “after”, as in the phrase “post partum”, meaning “after giving birth”.

Several scientists use the term “post-biotic” to refer to the time in the earth’s history afterlife originated. JF Kasting used it this way: “…in the post-biotic Archean…”.

Some writers use “post-biotic” to refer to a future age, wherein either human souls liberated from living bodies or intelligent machines would make further progress in philosophy or science. (See C. M. Condit).

This article will not deal further with the term “post-biotic”, although it may indeed refer to a nutritional supplement that mimics the natural products of probiotic bacteria.

What is the Best Probiotic Supplement or Food?

There is no single “best probiotic supplement” or probiotic food. Several different bacteria are beneficial probiotics.

Asking for the “best probiotics” is like asking for the “best vegetable”: a variety is better than any single choice.

Health Benefits of Prebiotic Nutrients and Probiotic Bacteria

It is important to note that in 2007, the UN FAO proposed that “prebiotic” should only describe food components that demonstrate benefits, are safe, meet food quality standards for purity, and have been properly tested in double-blind, randomized controlled human trials. In theory, if a reputable company describes an ingredient as “prebiotic”, it should have some health benefits.

Those health benefits of prebiotic nutrients and probiotic bacteria that are often cited include reduced cholesterol levels, quicker removal of “bad bacteria” from the digestive system, weight control, stronger bones, improved immune system response, and reduced risk of colon cancer.

Probiotics are also touted as helping to prevent or end diarrhea.

Health Concerns Regarding Prebiotic Nutrients and Probiotic Bacteria

Few health concerns with prebiotics or probiotics have been cited. Adding prebiotic fiber or any unfamiliar food might lead to temporary flatulence or loose stools.

The realm of pre-existing allergies is one obvious concern, such as a lactose-intolerant person who begins eating probiotic yogurt in large quantities.

Another concern is that prebiotics and probiotics are food components, rather than therapeutic medications. Food regulations are less stringent in many ways than pharmaceuticals. While G.A. Mills says that 1 to 3 grams of prebiotic fiber is reasonable, that article admits that there are no firm guidelines.

Mills also warns that persons with compromised immune systems, or are recovering from surgery, should consult with their doctors.

Recommendations on Prebiotics and Probiotics

Having covered “what is probiotic”, “what is prebiotic” and “what are the benefits or concerns”, it is time for specific recommendations.

If you had absolutely no probiotic bacteria in your intestine, eating prebiotics will not help. Since most people already have some probiotic guests, merely adding prebiotic fiber can help those bacteria flourish.

People who already eat yogurt may try probiotic yogurt; others who prefer soybean products may choose “soyogurt”, miso or tempeh. Chicory and Jersusalem artichokes provide prebiotics.

Healthy people are very likely to tolerate both prebiotic and probiotic foods. Mills states that the probiotic bacteria have been used safely for a very long time.

Persons under a doctor’s care should discuss any plans with their doctor. Taking a cholesterol test before adding probiotics, and then testing again in a few months could yield useful information.

Simply being mindful of any changes in one’s own feelings of wellness should allow a person to decide whether to continue taking prebiotics or probiotics for a longer-term.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used for diagnosis or to guide treatment without the opinion of a health professional. Any reader who is concerned about his or her health should contact a doctor for advice.

Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily endorse any product or brand, including any shown in illustrations.


  • United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, “FAO Technical Meeting on Prebiotics“, Archived content
  • University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), “Burdock”.
    Robert Roberts, Ph.D, College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State University, “What are probiotics?”.
  • The University of Pittsburgh, “New Approaches for the Prevention and Treatment of Necrotizing Enterocolitis (R01)”.
  • James F. Kasting, Penn State University, “Methane and climate during the Precambrian era”.
  • Celeste M. Condit, Iowa Research Online, “A Posthumanist Archaeological Expedition”.
  • Gale A. Mills, Oklahoma State University, “What are Probiotics?”.

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