Nutrition

Prebiotics vs. Probiotics: What’s the Difference?

5 min read

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But first... Are postbiotics the missing key to gut health?

Picture this: The year is 2022. Wellness is the name of the game—and so, it seems, is gut health . You, too, want to optimize your body, so you peruse social media and scroll through the Internet, bracing yourself for the inevitable onslaught. It doesn’t take long: Within seconds, mentions of probiotics and articles underscoring the importance of a balanced microbiome begin hijacking your attention. "You are what you eat," they read. "Or more accurately, you are what you feed the trillions of microorganisms that live in your gut."

Dazed, and just a little bit confused, you dig deeper. You’re on a mission and will not be stopped until you find the answers: Is that statement even true? What, exactly, are probiotics? What are these prebiotics they speak of? How do both impact the gut, and how might you use this knowledge to serve your body best? Embarking on the path to better digestive health doesn’t have to be a dystopia—as skeptics who have been in your shoes, we’re here to demystify the process. Keep scrolling to learn the differences between a probiotic and a prebiotic, and why they’re both key components in supporting a healthy gut.*

The gut microbiome is shaped by our environment, diet, and lifestyle

In other words, no two are identical—just like individual fingerprints, our microbiome is unique to us, and can change based on what our lives look like at any given moment. For instance, if we're eating a poor diet, experiencing stress, traveling, or taking certain medications, our gut microbiota—aka the microbes that make up our gut bacteria—can get thrown off (and that’s just to name a few causes).* (1,2,4)

What are probiotics?

According to the World Health Organization, probiotics are living strains of bacteria (often referred to as “good bacteria”) which, when consumed in adequate amounts, provide health benefits to the person ingesting them.* (5,6)

Since these types of bacteria are only able to take up temporary residence in the gastrointestinal tract (read: days or weeks at maximum), evidence suggests that in order for probiotics to provide an actual positive impact, they must be consumed on a consistent basis—ideally, daily.* (2,6)

Related: Probiotics 101: A Beginner's Guide to Probiotics

Sources of probiotics

In addition to taking probiotic supplements, there are many fermented foods you can incorporate:

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Miso soup
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Picked vegetables
  • Tempeh
  • Natto
  • Sourdough bread

Although many fermented foods and drinks are associated with healthy diets (and some may even be associated with health benefits!), there’s actually very little evidence that the live cultures that are naturally present can survive the harsh conditions in the stomach and small intestine. (2,10,11)

What’s more: Studies also show that fermented foods and drinks typically do not contain proven probiotic microorganisms—which is why taking a high-quality probiotic supplement can be helpful for supporting gut flora.* (2,10,11)

ProbioticPrebioticFoods.jpg

What are prebiotics?

In contrast to probiotics, which are live bacteria, prebiotics are not living organisms—they’re nondigestible food ingredients that strategically support the “good bacteria” that already exist in your gut. Certain prebiotics, such as the ones found in complex carbs, feed the probiotic bacteria so it can grow, while others provide support in different ways (such as by singling out “bad bacteria” to free up space for the good stuff). Similar to probiotics, they can come in the form of prebiotic supplements or foods.* (5,6,7,8)

In terms of food sources, prebiotics are typically found in complex carbohydrates. (Complex carbs are difficult for our digestive systems to process, and arrive largely intact to the colon, where they act as nutrients for the beneficial bacteria that reside there.)* (2,9)

Sources of prebiotics

Beyond supplementation, here’s some foods that provide prebiotics:

  • Bananas
  • Oatmeal
  • Asparagus
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Dandelion greens
  • Leeks
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Apple skin
  • Chicory root
  • Beans
  • Berries
  • Legumes

Bottom line?

So, to recap: Probiotics add to the population of good bacteria in your gut, while prebiotics support that bacteria so it can flourish. It can be tricky to ensure you’re consuming enough of both—especially if you struggle with consuming produce, or enjoying fermented foods. The good news is that there are supplements that can help.*

References:

  1. Lynch SV, Pedersen O. The Human Intestinal Microbiome. N Engl J Med. 2016 Dec 15;375(24):2369-2379.
  2. Office of Dietary Supplements. Probiotics: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health, Department of Health & Human Services. 2020.
  3. Robles Alonso V, Guarner F. Linking the gut microbiota. Br J Nutr. 2013 Jan;109 Suppl 2:S21-6.
  4. Gilbert JA, Blaser MJ, Caporaso JG, Jansson JK, Lynch SV, Knight R. Current understanding of the human microbiome. Nat Med. 2018;24(4):392-400.
  5. Gibson GR, Roberfroid MB. Dietary modulation of the human colonic microbiota: introducing the concept of prebiotics. J Nutr. 1995 Jun;125(6):1401-12.
  6. World Health Organization. Guidelines for the Evaluation of Probiotics in Food. Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Working Group on Drafting Guidelines for the Evaluation of Probiotics in Food. 2002.
  7. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). Probiotics: What You Need To Know. National Institutes of Health, Department of Health & Human Services. 2019.
  8. Pineiro M, Asp NG, Reid G, Macfarlane S, Morelli L, Brunser O, Tuohy K. FAO Technical meeting on prebiotics. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2008 Sep;42 Suppl 3 Pt 2:S156-9.
  9. Roberfroid M, Gibson GR, Hoyles L, et al. Prebiotic effects. Br J Nutr. 2010 Aug;104 Suppl 2:S1-63.
  10. Hill, C., Guarner, F., Reid, G., Gibson, G.R., Merenstein, D.J., Pot, B., Morelli, L., Canani, R.B., Flint, H.J., Salminen, S., Calder, P.C., & Sanders, M.E. (2014). The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics consensus statement on the scope and appropriate use of the term probiotic. Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 11(8), 506-514.
  11. Jäger R, Mohr AE, Carpenter KC, Kerksick CM, Purpura M, Moussa A, Townsend JR, Lamprecht M, West NP, Black K, Gleeson M, Pyne DB, Wells SD, Arent SM, Smith-Ryan AE, Kreider RB, Campbell BI, Bannock L, Scheiman J, Wissent CJ, Pane M, Kalman DS, Pugh JN, Ter Haar JA, Antonio J. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Probiotics. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2019 Dec 21;16(1):62.
  12. Carlson, J. L., Erickson, J. M., Lloyd, B. B., & Slavin, J. L. (2018). Health Effects and Sources of Prebiotic Dietary Fiber. Current developments in nutrition, 2(3), nzy005.

Meet Our Experts

This article features advice and has been reviewed by members of our Science Team.

Science Thumb — Arianne

Arianne Vance, MPH, Senior Scientist

Arianne Vance is a Senior Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MPH in Epidemiology from UCLA. Her graduate research focused on maternal and child health, with an emphasis on breastfeeding and maternal mental health. She is passionate about sharing her love of science by presenting cutting-edge research in an accessible and engaging way.

Science Thumb — Arianne

Arianne Vance, MPH, Senior Scientist

Arianne Vance is a Senior Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MPH in Epidemiology from UCLA. Her graduate research focused on maternal and child health, with an emphasis on breastfeeding and maternal mental health. She is passionate about sharing her love of science by presenting cutting-edge research in an accessible and engaging way.

Meet the Author

Courtney Cho

Courtney Cho, Content Marketing Manager, Writer, Journalist

Courtney Cho is a health and wellness writer who has covered a wide variety of industry topics, from the science of nutrition and gut health to clinical testing and greenwashing. After earning her B.A. from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she specialized in journalism and reporting, her career has focused on the intersection between clean products, ingredient transparency, and science-backed wellness—and how everyday habits can contribute profoundly to our quality of life.

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Courtney Cho

Courtney Cho, Content Marketing Manager, Writer, Journalist

Courtney Cho is a health and wellness writer who has covered a wide variety of industry topics, from the science of nutrition and gut health to clinical testing and greenwashing. After earning her B.A. from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she specialized in journalism and reporting, her career has focused on the intersection between clean products, ingredient transparency, and science-backed wellness—and how everyday habits can contribute profoundly to our quality of life.

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