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6 reasons prebiotics may be more important than probiotics

Functional fibers and targeted prebiotics have the potential to deliver gut-healthy nutrients to wider populations. Are prebiotics about to pass probiotics in the gut health market?

Nick Collias

December 6, 2023

9 Min Read

At a Glance

  • Prebiotic fibers feed probiotic bacteria.
  • Next-gen "targeted" prebiotics arrive on the market.
  • Use for a wider range of products and people.

Conversations about probiotic and prebiotic supplements tend to operate in metaphors: Bugs and bug food, trees and forests, citizens in a city … take your pick. 

Len Monheit, executive director of the Global Prebiotic Association (GPA), spends a large part of his workdays helping brands make prebiotics make sense for consumers. He said he reaches for one analogy time and time again: “Probiotics are like seeds. Prebiotics are the fertilizer. With prebiotics, you’re creating an environment where the right type of seeds will flourish.” 

This image vividly lays out the logic behind both product categories. If you need a carrot, there’s no avoiding the need for at least one carrot seed. But plant that seed in unhealthy soil, and it won’t stand a chance—nor will any other essential crops. 

So which one should be the higher priority? The advances offered by the latest generation of “targeted” prebiotics make a strong case that tending to the garden might offer more robust and lasting benefits than simply planting more seeds. 

Here’s how prebiotics could be more important than probiotics, according to experts in the field: 

1. Prebiotics are more resilient 

Probiotic organisms face a tough challenge outside of the human body. They’re extremely sensitive to heat and moisture during manufacturing, and vulnerable to degradation by time on the shelf. Once swallowed, they have to run the gauntlet of gastric acid and bile in order to get to the intestines. Some estimates put the survival rate as low as 20-40%

Related:The gut-skin axis revealed in new ingredient “skinbiotics”

And for the lucky survivors who make it to the large intestine, things don’t get easier. Ruud Albers, Ph.D., CSO of prebiotic manufacturer NutriLeads, explained, “The gut microbiome contains trillions of microorganisms, all competing for limited nutrients. In this fiercely competitive environment, it can be difficult for probiotics to establish a presence and exert a positive influence on gut health.” 

When producing prebiotics, by contrast, Monheit advised, “You don't have to worry as much about temperature, water, humidity and their environment; they’re much more robust to formulate with.” 

Even the human digestive system struggles to break down prebiotics—which is precisely where some of their benefits are derived. Without having to worry about prebiotic survival, prebiotic manufacturers are instead able to focus on creating “precision prebiotics” that: 

• Feed and nurture only healthy bacteria populations. 

• Target specific outcomes like immune health. 

“Precision prebiotics are the future,” Albers declared. “Given the essential role of the gut microbiome in overall human health and wellness, it is hard to overestimate its potential for natural health solutions.” 

Related:How to target the right consumers with the right ingredients for gut health

2. Prebiotics can work in a wider range of products 

A given probiotic strain might be effective when taken in a very specific capsule or other delivery method. But put that same probiotic in say, a drink, and the benefits could be completely canceled out. 

Many prebiotic ingredients, however, show the potential to work in a wide range of food, drink and supplement formats, giving consumers more ways to experience their beneficial effects. One is chicory root, a popular source of the prebiotic fiber inulin. 

“A new human intervention study shows that when incorporating prebiotic chicory root fiber into different food applications, the efficacy is not affected,” explained Anke Sentko, VP of regulatory affairs and nutrition communication at Beneo, producer of the chicory-derived prebiotic fiber Orafti. “Chicory root fibers support the selective growth of beneficial Bifidobacteria in the human gut, no matter which food application and food matrix they are used in.” 

3. Prebiotics can work on a wider variety of people 

The human microbiome contains 300-500 species of probiotic organisms by some estimates. But the ones that would benefit humans the most may or may not be present in any given probiotic supplement. Or then again, they might be there—even if the consumer doesn’t need them. To continue with the garden metaphor, if a man has plenty of carrots, why would he spend money planting more? 

Related:Reframing probiotics: Making metabolites the effectiveness standard – article

By contrast, a prebiotic might still benefit a given person, as long as it helps to create butyrate. This short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) is what gets produced in the gut through microbial fermentation of dietary fibers. It serves as the primary fuel for colon cells, and can also help strengthen the intestinal lining and reduce inflammation, among a growing list of potential benefits. 

It seems safe to say that creating butyrate is good for everyone’s guts. And prebiotics show the potential to do so, regardless of a consumer’s current diet and microbiome status. 

“Prebiotics like ButyraGen work independent of the state of one’s microbiome, since it produces direct butyrate generation in the digestive tract by a different mechanism,” said Michael Lelah, Ph.D., CSO of NutriScience Innovations, which produces ButyraGen. “Here butyrate is generated by proteolytic enzymes which reside in the small intestine—independent of the microbiome, which largely exists in the large intestine. This makes it easier for brands to deliver products that will benefit a wider range of consumers.” 

4. Prebiotics can decrease sugar content in products 

Sugar-rich diets are known to contribute to the production of “bad” bacteria and to negatively affect overall gut health. This makes controlling sugar intake a high priority when caring for the microbiota, and prebiotics might have the potential to tilt the good/bad bacteria balance in the right direction. 

[To access your complete toolbox for biotic new product development and market success, download the free Natural Products Insider digital magazine, "Biotics Battle."]

Prebiotic fibers aren’t sweeteners per se, but certain ones like chicory root fiber do have a slightly sweet flavor that allows them to nutritionally fortify food products. Sentko from Beneo labels this swap “sugar out, fiber in.” 

“One of the technical benefits of chicory root fibers is that they can help to reduce sugar content in many sweet applications like muffins, chocolate, gummies and yogurts—while at the same time, adding fiber content to improve the nutritional profile of these and other similar products,” Sentko claimed. “Thus the end product still offers an appealing taste and texture.” 

5. Prebiotics deliver benefits in smaller doses 

On many probiotic supplement labels, it’s common to see large-font print boasting about the vast quantity of organisms reportedly living inside each capsule: 10 billion, 50 billion, even 100 billion CFUs (colony-forming units). 

Historically, many prebiotic products have also focused on quantity, but the next generation of prebiotics aim to provide impact in a far smaller package. 

“It used to be the case that you needed 6 grams or even 10 grams,” Monheit shared. “Today’s prebiotics can be more efficacious at far smaller doses. Some brands utilize polyphenols, which can put it even lower.” 

How low? Nexira’s grape-derived polyphenol prebiotic VinOgrape comes in a 600 mg dose. Carrot-derived BeniCaros from NutriLeads has shown benefits at doses at 300 mg. 

Lowering the dosages also helps combat the most well-known side effects of taking prebiotics. A study published in the journal Nutrients in April 2023 found that a 300 mg dose of carrot-derived prebiotics produced less than half the gas of a traditional dose of inulin fiber but was still able to consistently improve the microbiome composition and function in a group of 24 adults. 

“Using these lower doses further helps it be suitable for multiple product formats,” Monheit stated. “Instead of just a powder, or putting it into a bar, you can actually put it into a capsule or a beverage.” 

6. Prebiotics help probiotics work better 

Of course, prebiotics and probiotics don’t have to be an either/or choice. An increasing number of products are pairing the two ingredients in what are known as “synbiotics.” 

These formulations have the potential to bypass what a recent review study in Frontiers in Microbiology termed “the ecological limitations” of probiotic-only products by providing both a beneficial strain and “a substrate” that supports the growth of that strain—and others. 

Monheit noted the rise of synbiotics has been encouraged by an array of factors including: 

a. What he calls a “plateau” in the probiotic market. 

b. Next-generation prebiotics showing effectiveness at smaller doses. 

c. Increased consumer demand for, and awareness of, prebiotics. 

“Familiarity is growing,” Monheit shared. “It just makes intuitive sense that I need to have a fertile environment for probiotics in my gut.” 

Synbiotics also have potential because their prebiotic content could be beneficial for a consumer who might not otherwise benefit from a certain probiotic product’s content. Monheit said this is a key reason he’s bullish on prebiotics. 

“Almost everybody could probably benefit from a prebiotic,” he maintained. “I'm not sure that everybody could benefit from a probiotic.” 

This story is from the current free Natural Products Insider digital magazine, "Biotics Battle." Stories in that issue cover the microbiome movement, why probiotic strains matter, formulation challenges with biotic ingredients, and consumer demographics that inform CPG companies as they develop new products. Download the digital magazine for free right here.

About the Author(s)

Nick Collias

Nick Collias is a writer and editor with over a decade of experience working in the health and fitness industry. From 2016 to 2021, he was the host of the Bodybuilding.com Podcast, interviewing elite athletes and training thought-leaders on a wide range of exercise, nutrition and lifestyle topics. Additionally, he has worked for the last 20 years as a longform print and online journalist, as well as a book author, ghostwriter and editor. 

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