What’s the Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics?

updated Jan 6, 2020
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Credit: Maria Siriano

Gut health is a hot topic. It turns out that your microbiome — the bacteria that live in your gut — have a lot to do with your overall health, which is why many people are becoming more interested in probiotics.

And while probiotics are gaining in familiarity, you might not have heard of their counterpart, prebiotics. While the names sound similar, they’re not the same thing. Here are the basics of what you need to know about probiotics and prebiotics, as well as what sets them apart.

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are living microorganisms (bacteria and yeast, to be specific) that provide benefits for maintaining a healthy gut and digestive system. In the past, we considered most bacteria to be either dangerous or harmless, but over the last few decades researchers have found that many bacteria are actually helpful, or even essential. Probiotics is the name we give to that group of bacteria. The full health effects of probiotic foods are not clear — they are touted for everything from boosting our immune system to reducing inflammation — but one thing we know for sure is that they play a positive role in digestive health.

While there are supplements and an increasing variety of packaged foods that have been enhanced with probiotics, there are also a variety of foods that naturally contain probiotics. Yogurt, kefir, cultured cottage cheese, fermented sauerkraut and pickles, kimchi, miso, and tempeh are all examples of foods that naturally contain probiotics.

4 Probiotic Recipes to Try

What Are Prebiotics?

We can’t talk about probiotics without also talking about prebiotics. That’s because, like any living organism, probiotics have to eat — and simply put, prebiotics are food for probiotics. Prebiotics are non-digestible ingredients (mostly fiber) that promote the increase of good bacteria in the gut, enabling them to thrive and flourish, and ultimately to keep the “bad bacteria” in check.

There’s a chance you’ve been consuming prebiotics without knowing, because like probiotics, prebiotics are also naturally found in a variety of foods. The most common sources of prebiotics include alliums (onions, garlic, and leeks), bananas, oats, barley, beans and legumes, asparagus, dandelion greens, and Jerusalem artichokes.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

4 Prebiotic Recipes to Try

Now you have a good sense of what both probiotics and prebiotics are. If you’re looking to care for your microbiome, it helps to include both probiotic and prebiotic foods in your daily intake.