Prebiotic (nutrition)

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Prebiotics are a category of functional food, defined as: Non-digestible food ingredients that beneficially affect the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon, and thus improve host health.[1]

Most potential prebiotics are carbohydrates (such as oligosaccharides), but the definition does not exclude the use of non-carbohydrates as prebiotics.

The definition does not emphasize a specific bacterial group. Often, however, it is assumed that a prebiotic should increase the number and/or activity of bifidobacteria and lactic acid bacteria. The importance of the bifidobacteria and the lactic acid bacteria (LABs) is that these groups of bacteria are claimed to have several beneficial effects on the host, especially in terms of improving digestion and the effectiveness and intrinsic strength of the immune system. A product that stimulates (or claims to stimulate) bifidobacteria is considered a bifidogenic factor. Some prebiotics may thus also act as a bifidogenic factor and vice versa, but the two concepts are not identical.[2]

Typical dietary sources of prebiotics are soybeans, Jerusalem artichokes (which contain inulin), raw oats, unrefined wheat and unrefined barley. Some of the oligosaccharides that naturally occur in breast milk are believed to play an important role in the development of a healthy immune system in infants, but these are not considered prebiotics, as they do not act through the intestinal microflora.

Prebiotic oligosaccharides may be added to processed foods. Some oligosaccharides that are used in this manner are fructooligosaccharides (FOS), xylooligosaccharides (XOS), and galactooligosaccharides (GOS). In petfood also mannooligosaccharides are being used.

Examples of products that contain prebiotics are :

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  1. Gibson GR, Roberfroid MB. Dietary modulation of the human colonic microbiota: introducing the concept of prebiotics. J Nutr. 1995 Jun;125(6):1401-12. PMID
  2. Wageningen University

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