The world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050. By then, food production will have to increase dramatically if humanity is going to feed its growing numbers. And there are only so many ways one can grow crops or raise livestock.
So what do we do?
A new type of food may offer a solution: prebiotics, which are substances that promote the growth of friendly bacteria in the gut—the area where most human nutrition takes place.
In other words, prebiotics could make it easier for us to digest our food and keep it from spoiling. They might even prevent certain types of infections.
But how do we get these beneficial bacteria into our bodies? What does the research say about whether they’re safe to eat? And what exactly are prebiotics? How much do we need to take in each day to reap their benefits?
These questions remain unanswered.
So what is a prebiotic?
A prebiotic is any substance that promotes the growth of friendly bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract (or gut). These helpful microbes are called probiotics. Probiotics are often used in foods such as yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables like kimchi. But they can also come from supplements or dietary supplements.
Probiotics have been studied for decades because they seem to play several roles in health. These include helping to:
protect the gut from potentially harmful bacteria or pathogens
regulate the immune system
maintain a healthy digestive system by relieving diarrhea and reducing stomach acid and gas
improve lactose digestion for individuals who are lactose-intolerant
improve cholesterol levels
improve skin conditions such as eczema or ulcerative colitis
treat urinary tract infections and prevent yeast infections in women
most importantly, improve overall health and well-being
Even though prebiotics and probiotics are closely related, they play different roles in the body. Probiotics are live microorganisms (often bacteria) that are similar to those found in your gut. They can be found in many foods such as milk products, fermented vegetables, and even some fruits. Lactic acid, a chemical that forms when certain foods such as milk turn into yogurt, helps prevent potentially harmful bacteria from growing in the gut.
Prebiotics, on the other hand, are a type of fiber that reaches the large intestine or colon largely intact. By changing the environment in the gut, prebiotics help probiotic bacteria thrive. Unlike probiotics, you can’t find prebiotics in your local grocery store. Instead, you have to consume them through food or dietary supplements.
The human body is home to trillions of microbes, most of which are bacteria. The number of these bacteria can vary greatly from person to person. However, most types are shared, although no two people have exactly the same combination of microbes. The human gut contains between 500 and 1000 different species of bacteria. While most of them perform vital functions, some are beneficial while still others cause harm.
The types and quantities of these bacteria change as you age, become obese, or acquire an infection by a specific germ. While probiotics can help change the types and quantities of bacteria, prebiotics affect them in a different way.
It’s important to keep your body’s ecosystem in balance to promote health. Normally, the body balances its ecosystem by itself. The problem is that the body’s ecosystem becomes unbalanced when there’s an overgrowth of harmful bacteria or a shortage of beneficial bacteria. This is where prebiotics and probiotics can help.
Taking in too many antibiotics, taking antibiotics when they’re not needed, or having a severely “out of balance” bacterial ecosystem can all make you more susceptible to infection. In these cases, taking a probiotic or a prebiotic supplement may help your body get back to a more natural state.
Furthermore, your body becomes less able to defend itself as you age, and this process begins before your first birthday! Many things can cause an ecosystem imbalance. Poor diet (too much processed food and not enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), sedentary lifestyle, some medications (especially antibiotics and other drugs that affect the gut), chronic alcohol use, and even psychological stress can all take their toll.
While probiotics and prebiotics may not be able to prevent everything, they can help rebalance your body’s ecosystem. This will improve your immune system’s ability to fight infection and possibly even decrease your chances of cancer or other serious diseases in the future.
There are several different types of prebiotics and many of these types work together. There are also different ways that each one works within the body.
All types of prebiotics work by feeding the “good” bacteria in your gut. The most common and well-researched prebiotic is known as inulin or oligofructose. This type can be found in many fruits, vegetables, and even some cereals. When looking for foods that contain prebiotics, you’ll often see inulin or oligofructose in the ingredients.
Another type of prebiotic is a fiber that comes from wheat. It’s known as wheat dextrin and it has a milder effect than inulin.
FOS or fructo-oligosaccharides is another type of prebiotic fiber. It comes from fruits and vegetables and can also be taken as a supplement.
A few species of bacteria actually produce prebiotics within the body. These “prebiotic-producing” bacteria can be taken in natural form or in supplement form.
When looking for a prebiotic, try to find one that contains multiple types of prebiotics. Also look for one that has the specific types of prebiotics that your body needs.
While prebiotics are found naturally in many foods and supplements, they can also be created artificially.
In fact, one of the most common types of prebiotics is created from soybeans. This is known as fiberedol and it’s often used to increase the dietary fiber content of food. It can also be found in supplement form.
The most common types of prebiotics are:
Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) – Found naturally in onions, bananas, garlic, and wheat. It’s also often used to sweeten low-fat foods because of its sweet taste.
Galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) – Like FOS, this type of prebiotic is also found naturally in dairy and legumes. It can also be taken as a supplement.
Inulin or oligofructose – This type of prebiotic fiber is commonly found in garlic, leeks, onions, wheat, and bananas. It can also be used to sweeten foods.
Soy fiber or soy-bean hemicellulose – This type of prebiotic is the main ingredient in many diet foods because it has no flavor but adds bulk to foods. It can also be found in supplements.
Wheat dextrin – This type of prebiotic is less common than the others and is often used as a digestive agent. It’s also found in many supplements.
Prebiotics are generally considered safe for most adults. There have been some reports of gas, bloating, and diarrhea when first taking prebiotics. These side effects are not cause for alarm and should go away after your body gets used to the supplement.
If you’re pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or breastfeeding, you should first talk to your doctor before taking any prebiotic supplements.
Do not give a prebiotic supplement to a child without speaking to a doctor first.
You should also check with your doctor before taking any prebiotic if you have any medical conditions or are taking any medications.
Like all supplements, prebiotics are not tested for safety and effectiveness the same way that medicines are. You may therefore want to consult with a healthcare provider before using prebiotics or any other dietary supplement.
There are several different types of prebiotics available. Each has its own benefits and side effects. It’s important that you find the type that works best for you.
Gently heating milk or cooking with it can decrease some of the lactose content, making it more tolerable for many people. Be sure to talk to your doctor before adding any dairy to your diet if you’re allergic to it or have been lactose intolerant for most of your life.
You should also talk to your doctor about taking a course of antibiotics before you add any milk products to your diet. Antibiotics kill off much of the bacteria in your system, including the bacteria that make lactase, which helps your body digest the lactose in milk. This could cause severe digestive issues after eating or drinking milk products.
If you’ve had issues with lactose intolerance in the past, you may want to try taking a lactase supplement before eating or drinking any milk products. Lactase is the enzyme that helps your body digest lactose, so if you take a lactase supplement, it can help break down the lactose in milk so your body doesn’t have to.
For some people, they don’t produce enough lactase, no matter how much they want to tolerate milk. In this case, you may want to look for lactose-free milk products. These are made from cows that have been bred to produce less lactose. If you can’t find any in your grocery store, try looking in natural food stores, as they’re more likely to carry them.
Lactose intolerance can be a frustrating condition. Many people are unable to eat many of the foods they love, like pizza or ice cream, because they cause uncomfortable bloating and diarrhea.
If you’re a vegan or prefer to get your calories from whole, unprocessed foods, then you can try eating nuts and seeds instead of dairy products. While these healthy foods do contain small amounts of lactose, most people can tolerate them better than milk.
If you’re looking for something to cut the tartness of yogurt, try mixing it with fruit or jam. You can also try blending the yogurt with a banana or other sweet fruits.
You can give your children a larger amount of milk and dairy products as long as they don’t seem to be having any problems with it. Just be sure to keep an eye on how much they’re consuming and pay attention to their growth patterns.
If you don’t consume dairy on a regular basis, your body may not produce as much lactase. If this is the case, you’ll be better able to tolerate small amounts of milk and you may be able to eat or drink larger amounts than someone who has regularly consumed a lot of dairy products.
It may take some time for your digestive system to adjust to eating and drinking dairy. The symptoms of lactose intolerance can come on rather quickly if you haven’t eaten or drank dairy in a long time. If you eat or drink dairy infrequently, your body may only exhibit mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.
Lactose intolerance isn’t a condition that affects everyone equally. In fact, some people can consume vast quantities of milk and other dairy products without experiencing any adverse effects.
90% of the world’s population loses the ability to digest lactose after infancy. In the United States, 75% of African Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and Asians are lactose intolerant.
In some cases, doctors may prescribe a lactase supplement or enzyme replacement that can be taken before eating or drinking anything with milk. These supplements can be found over-the-counter in drug stores or ordered online.
In other cases, people may only have mild symptoms after eating or drinking certain dairy products. If this is the case for you, you may want to try drinking milk that has been fermented or using lactose-free milk instead of regular milk. These types of milk may be easier to digest because part of the lactose has already been broken down during the process of making them.
People who have trouble digesting lactose can sometimes still eat hard, aged cheeses like cheddar or Swiss because bacteria has had more time to break down the lactose.
Many food manufacturers are careful to label their products as containing lactose. If you’re unsure if a product contains lactose, reading through the ingredients and checking with the manufacturer may help you avoid unpleasant (or even dangerous) side effects.
Some companies use a process called ultra-pasteurization in an attempt to extend the shelf life of milk. This process heats the milk to a higher temperature than normal and sometimes adds high pressure to the mix. In some people, this process can alter the structure of the lactose molecule, making it more difficult to digest.
In some cases, people have difficulty digesting foods that have been cooked with milk or recipes that contain ingredients made with milk.
Sources & references used in this article:
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The low FODMAP diet and its application in East and Southeast Asia by M Iacovou, V Tan, JG Muir… – Journal of …, 2015 – ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
Chlorogenic acid: Recent advances on its dual role as a food additive and a nutraceutical against metabolic syndrome by J Santana-Gálvez, L Cisneros-Zevallos… – Molecules, 2017 – mdpi.com
Handbook of fermented functional foods by ERT Farnworth – 2008 – books.google.com
Functional foods: an overview by S Kaur, M Das – Food Science and Biotechnology, 2011 – Springer