There seems to be a lot of talk lately on television, around health shops, and in health magazines about probiotics and prebiotics.

What exactly are they? How are they good for you?

First, understand that we aren’t talking about foods, but rather two types of supplements:  1) probiotics containing freeze-dried bacteria, billions within just one capsule, which can survive in our digestive tracts after ingestion; and 2) prebiotics which contain nutrients that feed certain bacteria in our digestive tracts. Common examples are fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and Inulin, found in vegetables like onion and garlic.

Though it seems strange, we want “probiotics” and “prebiotics,” as well as the foods they contain, because we actually want to ingest their bacteria. There are very few foods that we seek out for such a reason, unless we consider cultured dairy foods like yogurt and kefir.

If the right high-quality products are chosen, you can obtain a healthy amount of probiotics or “friendly” bacteria from cultured dairy foods. Just be sure the yogurt or kefir that you purchase lists “live cultures” on the label. Some products lose the live cultures added to milk, due to the processing and packaging.

Other foods may have live bacterial cultures added to them as well. Sauerkraut—which is actually fermented cabbage, and kim chee, an Asian derivative of fermented cabbage, are both cultured vegetables.  Live bacteria may also be present in miso, a thick paste often made from soybeans. As with the dairy items, buy high quality products and read labels carefully.

With regards to “prebiotic” foods, the nutrient fructo-oligosaccharides is key. Foods like Jerusalem artichokes and chicory root both contain high levels of FOS, and would be considered “prebiotic.” Root vegetables like onion, jicama, leeks, and asparagus contain the nutrient Inulin, which is prevalent in prebiotic supplements as well.

Finally, it is possible to view any high-fiber food containing digestion-resistant fiber and starch as prebiotic. Foods like oat, barley, and apples can help feed beneficial bacteria, metabolize in the lower digestive tract, and convert into fatty acids for bacterial energy.

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