The importance of probiotics has long been known. These live bacteria have proven beneficial for combating issues within the gastrointestinal tract and keeping the digestive system in a happy place. They also play an important role in strengthening your immune system. Probiotics are found in the cultures of dairy products, including yogurts. However, the cousins of probiotics — namely prebiotics — are much lesser known, though this is changing with each passing day.
How Are Probiotics and Prebiotics Related?
First, probiotics and prebiotics both serve important health functions for the human gut. Probiotics are live microorganisms that live inside your gastrointestinal tract. They aid in digestion by essentially cleaning out the gut so that things keep flowing. Like all living things, probiotics need to be fed in order to remain active and healthy and to benefit you as much as possible
Prebiotics act as food for probiotics. In other words, probiotics eat prebiotics.
How to Get Prebiotics?
In a nutshell, prebiotics are a type of fiber. They are undigestable plant fibers that feed the probiotics or the good bacteria already live inside the large intestine. The more food, or prebiotics, that probiotics have to eat, the more efficiently these live bacteria work and the healthier your gut will be.
You’re probably already ingesting prebiotics and may not even know it. You see, prebiotics naturally exist in many foods you may already consume on a regular basis. Since fiber is the source of prebiotics, foods that are high in fiber are also often high in prebiotics. But, not all are fermentable in your colon.
A List of Prebiotic Foods
Here are some of the top contenders on the prebiotic foods list. How many of them can you incorporate into your meals this week?
Raw Chicory Root
At nearly 65 percent of fiber by weight, raw chicory root is one of the best prebiotic food sources around. Raw chicory root is found in health stores or gourmet markets in the form of a supplement or in its ground form. You might have even eaten it without knowing it, as it’s also added to many types of food products here and there, including cereal, breakfast bars, dairy products, and bread.
If you’ve had raw chicory root already, you know it has a flavor akin to coffee, even though it doesn’t have any caffeine. It’s often used as a substitute for coffee, as raw chicory root doesn’t produce the unpleasant effects of coffee that some individuals experience, such as feeling jittery or having difficulty with sleeping.
You’re most likely familiar with the large green globe-like artichoke you see in your local grocery store, which you may have made yummy spinach artichoke dip out of. That’s not a Jerusalem artichoke, which is a totally different plant. The Jerusalem artichoke has nothing to do with artichokes, except that it mimics an artichoke heart’s flavor — hence how the word “artichoke” became part of its name. In fact, it actually looks like ginger rather than an artichoke.
The Jerusalem artichoke is better known as sunroot or sunchoke or, by many, as the “fartichoke,” due to its impressive fiber content. The raw Jerusalem artichoke, which is related to the sunflower rather than the artichoke, is an excellent source of nutrients and offers a wealth of health benefits. In addition to being a great prebiotic, it is also loaded with iron and potassium.
You can enjoy this prebiotic in a salad or it can be boiled, sautéed or roasted to resemble a creamy potato. Because the Jerusalem artichoke has a lower glycemic index, it can make a good substitute for potatoes for people with diabetes.
Raw Dandelion Greens
Dandelion greens are chock-full of nutrients, including Vitamin K, Vitamin A, calcium, and iron. In fact, a one-cup serving of raw dandelion greens provides you with 535 percent of your recommended daily value of Vitamin K, which is believed to help with blood clotting and maintaining strong bones in the elderly.
You can savor the prebiotic benefits of raw dandelion greens by adding them to your salads, sandwiches, stews, casseroles, soups or herbal teas. Because they can have a somewhat acrid taste when eaten raw, you can blanch them in boiling water for about 20 seconds to reduce this taste.
Raw garlic is also loaded with tons of nutrients, including manganese, Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, and selenium. There are several healthy ways you can add raw garlic to your diet, including:
- A feature flavor in guacamole.
- In hummus.
- In vegetable stir fries.
- As a flavorful ingredient in pasta meals.
The great thing about raw leeks, besides being a high prebiotic food, that is, is that they can be incorporated into just about any dish. As a sweeter version of the onion, they can be tossed into pasta, added to a garden salad, or used as an edible garnish for your quiche.
Of course, they also work fabulously in soups, but if cooked, they won’t have quite the same prebiotic content. A one-cup serving of raw leeks including bulb and stem boasts 52 percent and 18 percent of your recommended daily values of Vitamin K and Vitamin C, respectively.
Raw onions are a member of the lily family, such as garlic is, by the way. Eating onions raw provides you with organic sulfur compounds, which are an important mineral in your body. They are destroyed when you cook them.
Raw onions contain chromium to boost insulin production, quercetin, which fights off free radicals, and Vitamin C. Since most of the flavonoids are contained in the outermost layers of the onions, you should peel off as little as possible before chopping, dicing and tearing. So, in other words, don’t over-peel them! If raw onions give you heartburn or indigestion, consider cooked onions, another high prebiotic food.
As with raw onions, there are so many ways you can add cooked onions to your diet. They can be caramelized, fried, grilled or sautéed, for example. However, many would say there is no better way to have cooked onions than in a hot bowl of French onion soup covered with creamy, oven-melted provolone cheese.
Raw asparagus is another great source of prebiotics, as it contains 5 percent fiber by weight. For many, raw asparagus is tough to eat, but a wonderfully tasty, and less tough, way is to eat this prebiotic food source is to ferment it. Alternatively, you could try blending raw asparagus into a smoothie.
The raw banana comes prepackaged, making it a convenient prebiotic food to take with you wherever you go. Did you know Green unripened bananas have around 4 to 6 grams of carbs compared to a ripe banana which has around 24-28 grams of carbs…add it to your smoothie is the better way to get a green unripened banana into you, they’re not very tasty at all but a brilliant prebiotic.
Probiotic Food Sources
Foods high in probiotics are fermented dairy products. These foods naturally contain both prebiotics and probiotics, making them synbiotic. Some of the most common fermented dairy products include:
- Sour cream
- Also Kombucha
Raw or Cooked Prebiotics: Which Should You Use?
As with most foods, the composition of prebiotic fiber foods changes when they are cooked. Heating anything changes its composition, thus altering its natural occurring state. In the case of prebiotics, if you cook them, you lose some of that precious prebiotic fiber.
It’s not known exactly how much prebiotic fiber is lost when these foods are cooked, but it’s safe to assume the less they are heated, the more they will retain that healthy prebiotic fiber. So instead of cooking those dandelion roots, toss them in a salad and eat them raw. However, if you must cook them, minimally steaming them will allow them to retain more of that prebiotic fiber than it would if you were to boil or sauté them.
Prebiotics: How Much Do You Need?
In order to realize the full effects prebiotics can offer, strive to consume at least 5 grams of prebiotic-dense foods a day. While you may be consuming prebiotic foods in your diet, there’s no guarantee you are consuming the suggested 5 grams a day minimum for achieving the optimal beneficial health effects. While you can certainly try to gauge the amount of prebiotics you are ingesting by monitoring the types of prebiotic-rich foods you are consuming, there are factors that can impact the prebiotic fiber you are actually taking in.
For example, whether you consume the food raw or cooked, it can also impact the prebiotics in those foods. If you cook your prebiotic-rich foods, the manner in which you cook them can have a direct impact on the prebiotic makeup of the food.