Probiotics Vs Prebiotics: Which is Better?

Parul Dube

May 14, 2022

For centuries, microbes have been part of our everyday diet in meals, old-style foods, or beverages. These microbes have multi-faceted benefits and are often present in foods like yoghurt, fermented foods, and dietary supplements. Also, including these microorganisms in food and supplements increases their nutritional qualities. However, this is because microorganisms in food and beverages are the same microorganisms present in our bodies.

Probiotics and Prebiotics: The History

Probiotic comes from the Latin word meaning “for life,” with its origin derived from the words “lively” or “fit for life.” Elie Metchnikoff, an acclaimed Russian scientist and Nobel Prize winner, first discovered them. However, people weren’t aware of the potential health benefits of bacteria until Metchnikoff published his work.

There are foods such as fermented foods that contain probiotics. People have been eating fermented foods such as tempeh, miso, yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and more. We also have traditional Indian probiotic foods like idli, dosa, buttermilk, fermented rice pazhaiya soru, Panta bhat etc. Besides their flavourful taste, probiotics also hold exceptional nutritional value and multiple health benefits. These food products are beneficial for their high content of essential amino acids, sodium, fibre, calcium, and other essential minerals.

Prebiotics were first introduced in 1995 by Glenn Gibson and Marcel Roberfroid. It is a nondigestible food ingredient that selectively stimulates bacteria’s growth and activity in the colon, thus improving host health. Prebiotics contain only a few carbohydrate group compounds. Few of these include short & long-chain β-fructans [FOS and inulin], lactulose, and galactooligosaccharides. Prebiotics are non-viable food components that provide health benefits to the host associated with microbiota modulation.

Probiotics: Introduction

The probiotics are live microorganisms with multiple health benefits. These are the friendly microorganisms present in the gut that help digestion, immunity, and inflammation. In addition, they are present as supplements that help colonise the human gut with “good” bacteria. Lactobacillus species and Bifidobacterium species are some of the common probiotic microorganisms. 

One can consume probiotics from supplements or foods prepared through bacterial fermentation. These often include fermented foods, such as yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, and kimchi.

The human diet, especially nondigestible carbohydrates, is an essential source for growing gut microbiota (probiotics) to get energy. As a result, nondigestible carbohydrates can change the composition and function of gut microbiota. In addition, research has concluded that prebiotics can influence gut microbiota and its functioning.

Prebiotics: Introduction

Prebiotics are the nondigestible dietary substances that act as food or nutrient sources for the bacteria living in the gut microbiota. They stimulate the growth of bacteria in the colon and improve the host’s health. These include carbohydrates, often dietary fibres that are often indigestible by us. They travel to the lower digestive tract, i.e., the small and large intestine. It serves as a food source for healthy gut bacteria.

Fermentation of prebiotics in the gut produces short-chain fatty acids such as lactic acid, butyric acid, and propionic acid. Prebiotics help regulate the gut barrier’s functioning and integrity and modulate the immune system, inflammatory response, and glucose & lipid metabolism. 

The most vital groups of prebiotics are fructooligosaccharides, galactooligosaccharides, and transgalacto-oligosaccharides. However, the quantities of fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and galactooligosaccharides (GOS) exist at low levels in natural foods. Hence, research & developmental studies are underway to manufacture such on a large scale. Prebiotics are pretty safe to consume and have far-reaching health benefits. They are even easier to produce and store compared to probiotics.

Probiotics vs Prebiotics


  1. Probiotics are living microorganisms present in certain foods and supplements.
  2. They get energy by fermenting the nondigestible dietary substances, i.e., prebiotics. Together with the natural microflora of the gut, these bacteria contribute to our health.
  3. Receiving sufficient probiotics from food or supplements is beneficial for an efficient digestive system.
  4. Probiotics maintain a healthy balance of different other bacteria for an ideal digestive system and overall good health.


  1. The food sources for the bacteria living in the gut microbiome
  2. Nondigestible food substances travel to the colon, where bacteria use them for their nutrition.
  3. They nourish the probiotics already present in the lower digestive tract.
  4. The colon ferments indigestible dietary fibres and turns them into fatty acids, an energy source for good bacteria.

Content and Class of Probiotics vs Prebiotics


Common bacteria among the probiotic group are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species. However, there are various other probiotic bacterial strains, such as Saccharomyces, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, Escherichia, and Bacillus. Each genus has different species with many strains.

Probiotics-containing products are of two types: single strain and multi-strain probiotics. One can classify them based on the probiotic and the genus. However, this applies to single-strain probiotics. The scientific name of probiotics comprises genus and species name, where the strain term comes after the species name. A specific Lactobacillus can help prevent an illness. However, other species of Lactobacillus may not be effective for the same disease.


Nondigestible components act as food sources, assisting in the selective development, regulation, and stimulation of necessary microorganisms. Prebiotic dietary fibres include a broad category of compounds that help maintain digestive well-being. 

Prebiotics contain oligosaccharide carbohydrates (OSCs). Few other classes of prebiotics include fructans, galacto-oligosaccharides, starch & glucose-derived oligosaccharides, other oligosaccharides, and non-carbohydrate oligosaccharides.

Foods with Probiotics

Probiotics products contain live and active cultures, such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. However, one should check for a product label and know specific details before choosing a probiotic. Also, before eating probiotic foods, make sure they’re non-pasteurized, as this process can kill beneficial bacteria.

Probiotics found in fermented foods are:

  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha tea
  • Dairy or non-dairy kefir
  • Unpasteurized pickles and pickled vegetables
  • Yoghurt
  • Miso Soup
  • Tempeh
  • Marinated olives
  • Traditional buttermilk and cheese

The most common types of probiotics are:

  • Lactobacillus is the most common probiotic form available as dietary supplements or in fermented foods like curd and yoghurt.
  • Bifidobacterium: This probiotic form is present in selected dairy products. It helps with the relief from irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Saccharomyces boulardii is yeast present in many probiotic products such as supplements and hand-picked foods.

Foods with Prebiotics

People eat prebiotics in several forms, such as foods, beverages, or supplements. Prebiotics are nondigestible fibres (carbohydrates). Therefore, many plant-based foods contain prebiotics. 

Studies have found that prebiotic foods are beneficial for fatty liver diseases, obesity, and symptoms associated with non-alcoholic fatty liver. In addition, it lowers the risks of CVD and promotes calcium absorption.

Foods containing prebiotics are:

  • Asparagus
  • Chicory root
  • Fennel
  • Garlic
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Legumes such as beans, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, and peas
  • Nuts such as cashews and pistachios
  • Onions, leeks, shallots, scallions
  • Cereals such as wheat, barley, rye
  • Honey
  • Banana and other fruits
  • Tomato, sugar beet
  • Human and cow milk
  • Seaweeds and micro-algae

Before buying any prebiotic supplements, a thorough look at the label and ingredients to understand the type of prebiotics the supplement offers is essential. Some prebiotic supplements available on the market include:

  • Fructans (inulin and fructooligosaccharides)
  • Galactooligosaccharides (GOS)
  • Oligofructose (fructose)
  • Resistant starch
  • Oligosaccharides are the best-known prebiotics.

Health Benefits

Probiotics have multiple health benefits, some of which include:

  • Regulating and boosting the immune system
  • Defending the body against harmful foreign bodies such as bacteria
  • Supporting digestion and metabolism, preventing digestive disorders
  • Increases the bioavailability of necessary vitamins, like riboflavin, vitamin K, and vitamin B12
  • Enhanced absorption of essential minerals and nutrients
  • Improvement in cardiovascular health
  • Effective & efficient weight management

The benefits of probiotics have played a crucial role in promoting its adoption by a significant part of the population. Several studies have shown that probiotics stimulate essential immune responses and help to prevent the body from several types of ailments. This evidence-based study on humans and animals concluded probiotics provide additional health benefits. 

Few of these include 

  • Management of infectious diarrhoea
  • Antibiotic-associated diarrhoea
  • Prevention of ulcerative colitis
  • Atopic diseases
  • Extraintestinal diseases, and many others.

Lactobacilli probiotics in women improve vaginal health. Studies show that taking a routine intake of probiotics is more effective than using antibiotics to prevent urinary tract infections. Probiotics also help to improve the associated thyroid functions of the body.

Research on prebiotics is still an ongoing and continuous process. However, studies have shown that prebiotics may provide several health benefits to the general population.

Following are the health benefits of prebiotics:

  • Enhanced bioavailability of essential minerals and vitamins such as iron, calcium, and magnesium
  • Lower risks of allergy and several other metabolic disorders such as cardiovascular disease, colon cancer
  • Reduce the inflammatory response and symptoms associated with inflammatory bowel disease
  • Diminishes the prevalence rate of infectious and antibiotic-associated diarrhoea
  • Prebiotics promotes satiety and prevents obesity by promoting weight loss

Potential Health Risks

Research on probiotics shows that it is safe to use. In a study conducted on healthy adults, older individuals, and severely ill patients, probiotics showed no systemic bacteremia or fungemia cases. This study discovered two cases of infective endocarditis and one case of liver abscess in patients with chronic comorbidities, like diabetes or cardiovascular diseases. The study also reported at least 24 cases of fungemia following consumption of S. Boulardii in patients with underlying chronic illness.

Consulting a healthcare professional is essential before including prebiotics for individuals with IBS or other gastrointestinal disorders. 

Studies on probiotic intake showed higher chances of adverse events for patients suffering from Chron’s disease. Individuals with weak immune systems are more vulnerable to side effects. However, a study conducted in 2018 pointed out insignificant safety reports and data on adverse events of probiotic consumption. The lack of such safety data shows researchers still have little knowledge regarding risks associated with probiotics and their long-term effects on health. 

The Friendly Bacteria for You

People have become more aware and alert regarding health and its complications. As a result, there’s a significant increase in the dependence on probiotics and prebiotics. However, with no conclusive research or reviews regarding probiotics and prebiotics, the dosage should be on the basis of an individual’s current health, lifestyle, medical history, health issues, age, gender, and dietary needs. The 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) stated that the usage of probiotics and prebiotics grew from 2007 to 2012 in adults.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) endorses that consumers must always look for the “Supplement Facts” label on the product before buying. Even though supplements suit our individual needs, the added flavours or ingredients may cause an allergic reaction. Therefore, it is necessary to be aware and careful.

The difference between prebiotics and probiotics is in their applications. So, probiotics carry outside bacteria inside the body, whereas prebiotics is fodder for our present gut bacteria. Therefore, prebiotics is a better option than probiotics for improving the overall health of the gut microbiome. In addition, the prebiotic benefits are far more probable and long-lasting than the probiotic’s benefits.

Prebiotics are available in many foods; hence, implementing them in our daily diet can negate the need for supplements. In addition, prebiotics are much safer and less disposed to cause potential side effects than probiotics. 

The Bottom Line

Several factors need addressing before opting for a particular probiotic or prebiotic. One such aspect involves conducting thorough research on the disorders to manage them through prebiotics or probiotics. There are a variety of probiotics for different health conditions. The supplement you select may claim to have solved your situation. Still, the human body and its functions differ among individuals. Therefore, it’s possible that the supplement that benefited one may not work for another. Before taking these supplements, one should approach health care professionals like doctors, nutritionists, dieticians, or pharmacists.

According to experts, opting for food products rich in prebiotics and probiotics is essential to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. However, the choice of the supplement also depends on the body’s needs and capacities. Since the aim is to keep a healthy gut life, it’s best to rely on expert medical advice instead of a gut feeling. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. How many probiotics should a woman take daily?

A. Doses of probiotics depend on the individual’s specific needs. Therefore, it is essential to consult a healthcare professional before using any probiotics. The starting dose recommended is 20 to 50 billion CFUs, either once or twice daily on an empty stomach. 

2. What happens when you stop taking probiotics?

A. Regular administration of probiotics is essential, as the human gut requires a steady & stable supply of good bacteria. The body’s reaction may differ as every individual has different gut flora. There are possibilities of potential benefits, problems, and no deviations. There are possibilities for the gut microbiome to return to its pre-supplementation state within one to three weeks. 

3. Can I take probiotics with vitamins?

A. Dietary probiotics administration does not interfere with the efficiency or efficacy of other supplements like daily multivitamins. However, evidence suggests that consuming probiotics with omega-3 fatty acids may contribute to better probiotic delivery. 

4. Can probiotics cause anxiety?

A. Studies have shown that probiotic administration may ease depression symptoms among patients with an anxiety disorder or depression. The study also suggested that these supplements can be an adjunct therapy in treating emotional or mood disorders. However, insufficient evidence shows a requirement for more detailed studies. 

5. Do prebiotics make you fart?

A. Yes, prebiotics may make you more prone to flatulence because of the fermentation process. In addition, consumption of prebiotics may cause flatulence or bloat. Prebiotics, which comprise fibres that probiotics consume, enter the latter section of the digestive system intact. Since our digestive system cannot break down insoluble fibres, at this stage, the probiotics consume the fibres and undergo fermentation by absorbing the water present in the intestine. This fermentation process causes bloating. However, this bloating is normal and is not harmful. 

6. What are the dangers of prebiotics?

A. In most healthy adults, consumption of prebiotics or probiotics is safe with minimal side effects. However, consuming prebiotics for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can worsen the condition. Prebiotics can lead to rapid fermentation in stomach sensitive patients and may cause bloating, gas, constipation, or diarrhoea. Individuals suffering from fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs) intolerance or Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) should avoid prebiotics. 

7. Do prebiotics help you lose weight?

A. Some studies have established that regular intake of prebiotics may help shed extra kilos. The fibres in prebiotics help curb appetite, induce satiety and manage weight. In addition, it helps to prevent cravings and helps in weight management. 

8. How long should you take probiotics?

A. Probiotic intake depends on the individual’s needs. For example, probiotic administration for constipation and hay fever is up to four to eight weeks & 12 weeks. Hence, consulting a healthcare professional is mandatory in determining this duration and other necessary details. 

9. Should you take probiotics every day?

A. Probiotics are safe to consume daily, except in some cases. These do not cause adverse side effects, making them safe for daily consumption. To maintain the growth of good bacteria in the gut, a regular intake of probiotics is essential.

About the Author

Parul holds a Masters of Medical Science in Public Health Nutrition from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and has worked across the globe from the U.K to New Zealand (NZ) gaining her License with the Health Professionals Council (HPC, UK) and the NZ Nutrition Council. From being a Gold medalist in Clinical Nutrition to being awarded an internship with World Health Organisation (WHO, Cairo, Egypt) and Contracts with CDC Parul has had a wide spectrum of work experiences. She is very passionate about Nutrition and Fitness and holds strong to her guiding mantras ‘ Move more’ and ‘Eat Food that your grandmother can recognize’!

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