Prebiotics and Probiotics | The Difference & Significance

The American Heart Association recommends a daily dietary fiber intake of at least 25 to 30 grams, which can be achieved by incorporating five servings of fruits and vegetables into each day's meals and including whole grains as well.


Prebiotics, often confused with probiotics, play a crucial role in promoting a healthy gut. Unlike live microorganisms found in probiotic-rich foods and supplements, prebiotics are substances that foster the growth of beneficial microbes in the gut. They are primarily found in fiber-rich foods such as green bananas, asparagus, artichokes, garlic, onion, barley, and wheat bran. Prebiotic supplements commonly contain purified forms of dietary fiber that humans cannot digest. These supplements serve the purpose of nourishing the diverse mix of beneficial bacteria required for optimal gut function.

Prebiotics play a crucial role in maintaining gut health by nourishing and supporting the growth of beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. They serve as a source of specialized plant fibers that humans cannot digest but are instead fermented by the gut bacteria. By promoting the growth of these beneficial bacteria, prebiotics help maintain a healthy microbial balance in the gut, which in turn has positive effects on digestion, immune function, and overall well-being.

While prebiotics and probiotics are often mentioned together, they have distinct roles in supporting gut health. Prebiotics are the non-digestible fibers that serve as food for the beneficial bacteria in the gut. In contrast, probiotics are live microorganisms, typically found in certain foods or available as supplements, which directly introduce beneficial bacteria into the gut. While both prebiotics and probiotics contribute to gut health, their mechanisms of action differ. Prebiotics serve as nourishment for the existing beneficial bacteria, while probiotics add more beneficial microbes to the gut microbiota. Together, they work synergistically to support a healthy gut environment.

Numerous studies have indicated that prebiotics, both in supplemental and food form, contribute to regulating gut inflammation, alleviating constipation, and supporting overall digestive health. However, the amount of research on prebiotics is comparatively limited compared to probiotics, and the findings have been mixed. Additional research is necessary to establish a more comprehensive understanding of prebiotics' efficacy.

For instance, a 2018 trial involving 44 individuals with gastrointestinal disorders associated with flatulence examined the effectiveness of prebiotic supplementation compared to a low-FODMAP diet. The study revealed that both approaches were equally effective after four weeks. Similarly, a 2018 review of several dozen studies focused on managing irritable bowel syndrome evaluated the efficacy of prebiotics, probiotics, synbiotics (a combination of prebiotics and probiotics), and antibiotics. The findings indicated limited evidence supporting the benefits of prebiotics, alone or in combination with probiotics, for patients with the condition. A subsequent 2020 review of 33 randomized control trials reached similar conclusions.

Evidence suggests that prebiotic supplements may help alleviate constipation by promoting regular, frequent, and well-formed bowel movements. Furthermore, preliminary research indicates that prebiotics may enhance the immune system. However, more conclusive evidence is required to establish these claims. It is important to note that there is currently no significant data indicating any significant risks associated with taking prebiotic supplements. However, the efficacy of prebiotics in treating conditions like irritable bowel syndrome or diarrhea is yet to be substantiated. Consequently, healthcare professionals may refrain from recommending prebiotic supplements to their patients until further evidence emerges.

If parents choose to explore prebiotic supplements for their children, it is generally considered safe with minimal side effects. Some individuals may experience increased flatulence and loose stools, particularly when consuming prebiotics in higher-than-recommended amounts. To minimize such risks, it is advisable not to exceed a daily intake of five grams of prebiotics.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that prebiotic supplements should not be viewed as a miraculous solution for gut health. Dr. Cresci, a microbiome researcher in pediatric gastroenterology at Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital, emphasizes that relying solely on prebiotics is insufficient to compensate for an unhealthy diet. Instead, it is recommended to follow a fiber-rich diet that includes an abundance of fruits and vegetables. By doing so, parents can effectively nourish the beneficial bacteria in their child's gut. The American Heart Association recommends a daily dietary fiber intake of at least 25 to 30 grams, which can be achieved by incorporating five servings of fruits and vegetables into each day's meals and including whole grains as well.

By prioritizing a fiber-rich diet and adopting intentional dietary swaps, parents can offer their children a more transformative impact on gut health than relying solely on prebiotic supplements. It is crucial to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and maintaining a balanced diet, rather than solely relying on supplementation, is key to promoting optimal digestive health for children.

Prebiotics have the potential to positively influence gut health, particularly in children. While more research is needed to fully understand their efficacy, incorporating fiber-rich foods into a child's diet is a more natural and comprehensive approach to supporting the growth of beneficial bacteria in their gut. As with any supplementation, it is advisable to consult with healthcare professionals to determine the most appropriate and effective strategies for promoting the digestive well-being of children.



  1. Gail Cresci, Microbiome Researcher in Pediatric Gastroenterology at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital
  2. Grand View Research - "Prebiotics Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Ingredient (Inulin, GOS, FOS, MOS), By Application (Animal Feed, Food & Beverages), By Region, And Segment Forecasts, 2020 - 2027"
  3. Justin L. Sonnenburg, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University
  4. Kelly Swanson, Professor of Animal and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  5. Lisa Ganjhu, Associate Professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine specializing in gastroenterology
  6. Reezwana Chowdhury, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine