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Prebiotics and Probiotics: What’s the Difference?

Prebiotics and Probiotics: What’s the Difference?

Prebiotic and probiotic have become common words that we see in many grocery and health food stores. But what do prebiotic and probiotic mean and why should we pay attention?  We sat down with Behnaz Abedi, registered dietitian, Family Practice Care Centre at Women’s College Hospital, to talk about the benefits and differences between prebiotics and probiotics, and why you should proactively think about them when planning your diet.

Both prebiotics and probiotics are important for optimal bowel health and prevent conditions such as constipation, bloating and diarrhea. Understanding the definitions of each term helps to explain how they work together within the gastrointestinal system to provide multiple health benefits for the body.

“Prebiotics are indigestible parts of carbohydrates that come from our diets,” says Abedi. “They provide an environment where probiotics, as healthy bacteria, can thrive within our gastrointestinal system.”

The two types of prebiotics that are found in food sources are called fructo-oligosaccarides (or, FOS in short form) and galacto-oligosaccarides (GOS). FOS is found in vegetables, some fruits and whole grains, such as beans, legumes, bananas, onions and artichokes. GOS is naturally found in fermented dairy products, like yogurt or a popular Eastern European milk drink called kefir. It can also be added to other dairy foods and bread. One of the added benefits of these dairy products is that also they tend to last longer. 

Probiotics are living microorganisms, also called “good bacteria.” Each person has hundreds of billions of bacteria present in their intestine at all times, including different strains of bacteria, which is called microbiota. One’s microbiota will also vary from one person to another, and are affected by environmental factors including diet, stress and medications. To ensure that we have more good bacteria in our bodies, eat a healthy diet that encourages probiotic activity.

“Regular consumption of prebiotic and probiotic foods not only assists with digestion, but it can also help eliminate pathogen bacteria that make us sick. Bacterial pathogens can be the cause of conditions like diarrhea and stomach ulcers,” says Abedi. “Most importantly, prebiotics and probiotics work symbiotically in the intestinal tract. Having good intestinal health ensures that we’re absorbing the nutrients we need and boosting our immune systems to resist infection.”

In Canada there are two common types of probiotics added to food – Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. These are typically found in dairy products or probiotic supplements. Although probiotic supplements, in both pill and liquid form, are becoming more common in many health food stores, Abedi provides a few tips for people considering taking supplements.

Probiotic supplements are safe for most people, but it’s always best to talk to your doctor or dietitian first, as both the strains and the dose of supplements are important. However, one person’s response to the supplement can be different from another’s response and it cannot be guaranteed that everyone will notice improvement of their symptoms. In Canada, probiotics are regulated under Natural Health Products Regulations.

Supplements would also need to be taken for at least one week before someone can notice a difference and determine the pill’s effectiveness. It’s also important to read the labels on the bottles to ensure that you’re receiving the right probiotic strain and the correct load of bacteria in each pill.

“The bacterial strain (probiotic) needs to survive its passage through the intestinal tract without being destroyed, and reach the bowel,” says Abedi. “More work and research is being done to regulate more probiotic supplements on the market, but my suggestion would be if someone decides to take probiotic supplements, use it in addition to a well-balanced diet as a building block for a healthy digestive system.”

What Abedi emphasizes is that for most people the best way to have a healthy digestive system is to have a balanced diet. Because one’s microbiota can be altered by various factors, supplementation can be effective for those who have specific health issues including irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, and are unable to eat certain foods, but eating from all the food groups is still a key to overall good health.

“For those who have concerns because of food allergies or have a preference of certain food groups over others, they should speak with their doctor or a registered dietitian to find another solution,” adds Abedi. “But nothing will ever replace having a balanced diet from all the food groups to stay healthy and prevent illness.”


This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: December 2012

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