Eating smart: Look for prebiotics on ingredient list

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I love nutrition. I love the fact that there is so much to food beyond eating it. And most especially, I love helping people who are interested in maintaining or improving their health through what they eat or don’t eat. There are so many benefits in the foods available to us that science is barely beginning to scratch the surface. As exciting as nutrition can be, it can also lead to confusion trying to sift through the importance of discoveries like antioxidants, phytochemicals, probiotics and prebiotics. These foods can be grouped together in what is known as “functional foods.”

While I could spend pages filling you in on the wonders of food, I’d like to introduce you to the last of this group: prebiotics. As you’re probably aware, our digestive tracts are filled with hundreds of different types of microorganisms, both good and bad, and that what we eat can have a direct impact on their balance.

In a nutshell, prebiotics provide food for the beneficial bacteria in our digestive tract that, in turn, help the same beneficial bacteria do its job, whatever that might be. For example, eating foods that contain prebiotic fibers can help to naturally regulate the digestive system. Prebiotics differ from probiotics in that they are not digested by us, but rather by those above mentioned microorganisms that live in our gut.

So, where do prebiotics show up in our diets? As with any new functional food, it occurs naturally in some foods but also can be added in processing to other foods. Natural sources of prebiotics include wheat, chicory, onions, bananas, garlic, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes and leeks. Human breast milk has also been found to contain prebiotics, which are believed to promote the healthy immune system in infants. Two prebiotic supplements are inulin and fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which can be added to foods or might be available as dietary supplements. The best way to determine if a food might have prebiotic benefits is to look for them on the ingredient list. Other supplements include oligofructose, galactooligosaccharides (GOS), xylooligosaccharides (XOS), lactosucrose and lactitol.

As with any dietary change, should you decide to seek out these foods to add to your diet, be aware that some people are more sensitive to the digestive effect of these foods. There aren’t any official recommendations on the minimum or maximum amounts to strive for, which always gives me a chance to promote moderation. Also, seek out professional advice if you have any medical conditions before you make any drastic decisions regarding your health.

Mary Koch is a registered dietitian at Banner Churchill Community Hospital and the VA Lahontan Valley Outpatient Clinic. Send your nutrition questions to Mary at


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