The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

A Closer Look at Pre- and Probiotics

A Closer Look at Pre- and Probiotics

Dietitian Dialogues

December 20, 2009

Plainly put, digestive health is hot. Probiotics are dominating the functional foods market, and sales for prebiotic products continue to grow as well. 

Retail-wise this popularity is evident. More than 200 new products containing probiotic and/or prebiotic ingredients were introduced just last year – that’s over a 600% increase since 2005. 

Marketing dollars from pre- and probiotic product manufacturers, along with media buzz, have in part supported this surge. The result? Consumer awareness of probiotics and, to a lesser extent, prebiotics, is also on the rise. Seventy-one percent of surveyed participants in a 2009 International Food Information Council report had heard of probiotics and their associated health benefits, up 17 percent from 2007. 

Ironically, along with an increase in consumer awareness comes confusion and misinformation. Further education is essential to help shoppers optimize their digestive health when it comes to choosing healthful pre- and probiotic products at the grocery store. 

A Pre- and Probiotic Primer

The terms pre- and probiotics are often – albeit incorrectly – used synonymously. While both benefit digestive health, they do so in different ways:

  • Probiotics aid the gut by increasing the number of helpful bacteria, and inhibiting harmful bacteria, and may strengthen the body’s immune response.
  • Prebiotics, on the other hand, act as the “food” for these beneficial probiotic bacteria, enhancing their activity. Prebiotics also encourage the absorption of bone-strengthening minerals like calcium and magnesium due to the way they are digested.

When taken together, pre- and probiotics are called synbiotics as both work together in a synergistic way to enhance probiotic benefits.

It’s important to note that no legal definition exists for the term “probiotics.” So just because a product is marketed as having probiotics doesn’t mean that it will deliver health benefits. 

That’s because not all probiotics are the same. The amount needed and health effects vary by a bug’s genus (e.g. Lactobacillus), species (e.g. acidophilus), and strain (a series of numbers or letters). Testing an individual strain in human clinical studies is the only way to prove efficacy. 

Probiotic and Prebiotic Sources

Probiotics are found in supplements and various foods (like nutrition bars, yogurts, cereals, breads, and juices). 

Like probiotics, prebiotics are available in supplement and food forms, which can be naturally occurring or artificially added. Natural foods sources include whole grains, almonds, honey, onions, bananas, garlic, leeks, and artichokes. Added prebiotic ingredients are found in a wide range of foods – from baked goods, to chocolate, to flavored waters. 

Communicating the “Good Bacteria” Message to Consumers

Between strains, dose, and marketing messages, it’s easy to see why consumers might be confused about pre- and probiotics. Here are some tips to help your shoppers get the most bacteria bang for their buck:

Talk the talk. Probiotics, and their health benefits depend on the particular strain of the organism. Go to to learn more about individual strains and what products they’re used in.

Make sure your yogurt uses the Live and Active Cultures (LAC) Seal. Look for yogurts that bear the “LAC” seal. It’s governed by the National Yogurt Association, which holds manufacturers to very strict criteria in order to use the seal. (Note: Probiotics and LAC aren’t the same. All probiotics are LAC, but not all LAC are probiotics.) 

Check the “best by” date. Probiotics are time sensitive, and activity declines the longer a product sits on a shelf. You can use the “sell by” date listed on the label as a gauge of product quality and probiotic activity. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are less sensitive and can be stored at room temperature for months.

Be a prebiotic label guru. Looking to add more prebiotics to your diet? Stock up on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Also keep your eyes peeled for ingredient labels listing FOS (fructooligosaccharides), inulin (a type of FOS), GOS (galactooligosaccharides) or TOS (transGOS), as these forms of prebiotics are commonly added to foods. 

Know your numbers. Unlike probiotics, general dosage recommendations exist for prebiotics. The scientific consensus is that four to eight grams per day promote a “good bacteria” boost. That’s about four ounces of cooked onions.

Don’t get stuck on form. Dose and strain are more important when it comes to probiotic benefit than whether you get them from a food or supplement.

Bottom Line

As the number of products containing pre- and probiotics available on the market grows so does consumer interest. It’s important that we empower shoppers with the knowledge necessary to choose products that will deliver digestive health benefits. 

Nicki Briggs, MS, RD, heads up Chobani Greek Yogurt's Nutrition Communications' team. She is a member of the American Dietetic Association Nutrition Fact Sheet review board and has been featured in Better Homes and Gardens, Fitness, Cooking Light, Redbook, Gourmet Retailer, Health, Shape, and Today’s Dietitian.

As a nutritionist working for a supermarket, you have a unique outlook on how retailers are increasing health awareness at the store level and the kind of questions that shoppers ask. Each month, we'll be featuring a guest column, written by a nutritionist, that communicates this point of view on a variety of topics. And we want to hear from you. If you are a supermarket nutritionist interested in sharing your perspective and insights, we would love to help you share your thoughts! Please contact Allison Bloom at