Prebiotics make probiotics better

Prebiotics — the functional fibers that are the lunchbox for probiotic bacteria — expand the range of finished products beyond what live active probiotics can accomplish. Here's 5 key facts on 5 key prebiotics to help you decide which fiber to use for which application you have in mind.

Hank Schultz, Senior Editor

April 10, 2024

4 Min Read

At a Glance

  • Prebiotics are the up-and-coming players in the digestive health game.
  • These substrates are selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit.
  • Resistant starch, PHGG, inulin, FOS, GOS.

Prebiotics are the up-and-coming players in the digestive health game. These functional fibers have demonstrated benefits while offering formulation flexibility over their probiotic stablemates. 

First to the definition. As the term “prebiotic” started to gain consumer awareness, gradually more digestion-resistant carbohydrate molecules started to use that kind of language in marketing materials. 

As a result, pressure arose in the marketplace to put some parameters around the use of the term. The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) defines a prebiotic as: “A substrate that is selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit.” 

The International Probiotics Association (IPA), which recently expanded its purview to include prebiotic ingredients, follows ISAPP’s definition. 

The Global Prebiotic Association (GPA), a competing organization, tweaks it a bit, going with: “A product or ingredient that is utilized in the microbiota producing a health or performance benefit.” 

A word about prebiotics and “synbiotics”: At the dawn of the prebiotic marketing craze, the idea was to combine specific prebiotics and probiotic strains that would preferentially feed on those fibers, and label them sybniotics. 

Related:Postbiotics: DOA — dead on arrival — has its benefits

Prebiotics have been clinically demonstrated to foster the growth of broad swaths of the human gut microbiota, such as various species of Bifidobacteria. But narrowing that down to specific strains linked to specific prebiotic fibers and backing that with firm data has proven an elusive target. 

The following rundown outlines some of the common prebiotic fibers: 


Resistant starch 

Commercial source: Tapioca (cassava), potatoes, other plant sources 

Dose: 3.5 grams/day up to multiple grams/day 

Primary product category: Baked goods, packaged foods 

Resistant starch is perhaps the oldest — and one of the best researched — ingredients in the category. Modern food processing methods have removed much of this starch from North American diets, according to longtime expert Rhonda Witwer, who now works with ADM. Americans used to consume 30 grams or more of this ingredient in a day; the total is now down to about 3 to 5 grams. 

On the site, Witwer lists more than 350 clinical studies on this ingredient, spanning all the way back to 1984. 

Resistant starch, as the name implies, is digested slowly, and gives rise to abundant short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) production further down in the intestines. Modern ingredients derived from high-amylose corn have been commercially available since the 1990s. ADM’s version, sourced from tapioca (cassava), finds a home in keto, paleo and low-digestible carb-friendly finished products. 

Related:Biotics for life! – digital magazine


Partially hydrolyzed guar gum (PHGG) 

Commercial source: Guar beans 

Dose: 6 or 7 grams/day 

Primary product category: Supplements 

This ingredient is one that made the initial cut of prebiotic ingredients that were allowed to call themselves “dietary fiber” on labels when FDA let that hammer fall on its definition of the term. Marketers of some well-known prebiotic ingredients, such as inulin, were obliged to submit dossiers to reclaim their ability to call themselves dietary fiber on labels. 

While this was seen as a death knell for some ingredients, marketers got around the issue by harping on the functional, digestive benefits of the products, and leaving the fiber callouts aside. 

PHGG never had that issue, though, because of the strong suite of science put together by the ingredient’s developer, Taiyo International, which markets it under the Sunfiber brand name. The ingredient is known for its formulation flexibility and easy digestion.  

To read the intel on the three other prebiotics INULIN, FOS AND GOS, click here to download the free Natural Products Insider digital magazine >> “Biotics For Life!” Inside the issue is a tutorial on the microbiome, ingredient suppliers who describe how biotics work well alongside highly sought-after ingredients, how postbiotics came to be, and an insider lab tour of cutting-edge AI-driven biotics startup, Verb Biotics. 

About the Author(s)

Hank Schultz

Senior Editor, Informa

Hank Schultz has been the senior editor of Natural Products Insider since early 2023. He can be reached at [email protected]

Prior to joining the Informa team, he was an editor at NutraIngredients-USA, a William Reed Business Media publication.

His approach to industry journalism was formed via a long career in the daily newspaper field. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in journalism and German, Hank was an editor at the Tempe Daily News in Arizona. He followed that with a long stint working at the Rocky Mountain News, a now defunct daily newspaper in Denver, where he rose to be one of the city editors. The newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes during his time there.

The changing landscape of the newspaper industry led him to explore other career paths. He began his career in the natural products industry more than a decade ago at New Hope Natural Media, which was then part of Penton and now is an Informa brand. Hank formed friendships and partnerships within the industry that still inform his work to this day, which helps him to bring an insider’s perspective, tempered with an objective journalist’s sensibility, to his in-depth reporting.

Harkening back to his newspaper days, Hank considers the readers to be the primary stakeholders whose needs must be met. Report the news quickly, comprehensively and above all, fairly, and readership and sponsorships will follow.

In 2015, Hank was recognized by the American Herbal Products Association with a Special Award for Journalistic Excellence.

When he’s not reporting on the supplement industry, Hank enjoys many outside pursuits. Those include long distance bicycle touring, mountain climbing, sailing, kayaking and fishing. Less strenuous pastimes include travel, reading (novels and nonfiction), studying German, noodling on a harmonica, sketching and a daily dose of word puzzles in The New York Times.

Last but far from least, Hank is a lifelong fan and part owner of the Green Bay Packers.

Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the health and nutrition industry.
Join 37,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like