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Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that beneficially affect the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon, and thus improve the health status of the host. Unlike probiotics (which are live microorganisms), prebiotics are not live microorganisms but rather plant/fiber materials that aid probiotics to function properly in the gut. Prebiotics are only active in the large intestine (colon) while probiotics are mainly active in the small intestine. Prebiotics are mainly composed of oligosaccharides (carbohydrates). They help to increase the number and activities of the probiotic bacteria such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus in the gastrointestinal tract (GIT).


Prebiotics are dietary substances that consist of non-starchy polysaccharides and oligosaccharide materials poorly digested by human enzymes in the GIT. They nurture the growth of the good bacteria that colonize the gut of animals and man. Some notable prebiotics include inulin, oligofructose, polydextrose, fructo-oligosaccharides, lactulose, galacto-oligosaccharides and the oligosaccharides from breast milk.

Prebiotics are available in the open market and are usually incorporated or occur naturally in foods like biscuits, cereals, chocolates and other dairy products. Prebiotics aids in the modulation of gut microbiota. By stimulating the growth and/or number of beneficial bacteria like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli in the gut, prebiotics impact on the health of the GIT. They also improve the function of the gut especially in the areas of preventing constipation and helping the transit time of stool from the gut. Studies have also shown that prebiotics may also help to manage some gastrointestinal problems such as abdominal pain, flatulence and bloating.

Synbiotics are defined as appropriate combinations of probiotics and prebiotics. Since prebiotics are active in the large intestine and probiotics are mainly active in the small intestine, it is scientifically important to combine both prebiotics and probiotics to achieve asynergistic effect in vivo (i.e. in the gut).       

Further reading

Cooper G.M and Hausman R.E (2004). The cell: A Molecular Approach. Third edition. ASM Press.

Das H.K (2010). Textbook of Biotechnology. Fourth edition. Wiley edition. Wiley India Pvt, Ltd, New Delhi, India.

Davis J.M (2002). Basic Cell Culture, A Practical Approach. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. 

Mather J and Barnes D (1998). Animal cell culture methods, Methods in cell biology. 2rd eds, Academic press, San Diego.

Noguchi P (2003).  Risks and benefits of gene therapy.  N  Engl J Med, 348:193-194.

Sambrook, J., Russell, D.W. (2001). Molecular Cloning: a Laboratory Manual, 3rd edn. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, New York.

Tamarin Robert H (2002). Principles of Genetics. Seventh edition. Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Co Ltd, Delhi.     

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