Prebiotic foods are well regarded for their beneficial health effects. They promote the growth of helpful bacteria in your digestive system, which can increase mineral uptake and help reduce your chances of contracting certain types of cancer. So, what are the top prebiotic foods, and how do they help your gut to do its job?
What Does ‘Prebiotic’ Mean?
The definition of prebiotic food has changed since the term was first introduced in 1995. Originally, it referred to non-digestible ingredients that stimulated the growth of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine.
As more studies were conducted and showed the potential positive effects on the entire digestive system, the definition was expanded in 2017 by the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP).
The ISAPP’s current definition for a prebiotic is a substrate that host microorganisms selectively utilize for their benefits. In other words, they are food for the good bacteria in your gut, which can help to make you healthier. All of the currently recognized prebiotic foods are also sources of dietary fiber, but this is not always true the other way around.
How Do Prebiotics Work?
Prebiotics can’t be digested by the enzymes in your stomach and intestines, so they serve as a food source for the helpful bacteria in your microbiome (the collective term for the microbes that live inside your body). These helpful bacteria include those in the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus genera.
The microbes ferment the indigestible fiber, which breaks it down into a form that they can consume. They are then able to grow their population and be more active. This in turn improves their positive effects on your body. Because each type of bacteria prefers different sources of prebiotics, it’s helpful to include a variety of prebiotic foods as part of a balanced diet.
What Are the Different Types of Prebiotics?
There are a number of sources of prebiotics. When you are food shopping, look for these ingredients on the labels:
- Wheat dextrin
- Acacia gum
What Are the Health Benefits of Prebiotic Foods?
There are a number of established positive effects to be gained from eating prebiotics. These include:
- Modifying the glycemic index – less pronounced blood glucose spikes after eating is especially helpful for diabetics;
- Increased calcium and magnesium uptake – this improves the health and strength of your bones, which is of particular benefit to osteoporosis patients;
- Enhanced bacterial fermentation in the colon – this improves the regularity of bowel movements and reduces the risk of contracting colorectal cancers.
- Reduced likelihood of diarrhea – this one speaks for itself!
Researchers are also looking into further potential health benefits, which include:
- Improvements to your immune system – more helpful bacteria and fewer harmful ones in your microbiome can lead to better overall health;
- Feeling fuller for longer – useful for managing your weight, and for tackling obesity;
- Managing gut diseases – there are possible benefits for sufferers of Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Top 10 Prebiotic Foods
There are a number of sources of prebiotics easily available from your local markets, grocery stores, health food stores, and even from your own garden. Here’s our list of the top prebiotic foods:
#1 – Chicory Root – 65% Prebiotic Fiber
By far the best source of prebiotics by weight, chicory root is often added to yogurts, energy bars, bread, breakfast cereals, and in dietary supplements. It has also been used as a caffeine-free coffee substitute for many years, thanks to its coffee-like flavor. You can most easily find it as roasted granules, which you can add to your coffee or use in a variety of recipes.
#2 – Jerusalem Artichoke – 32%
Despite the name, Jerusalem artichokes are actually a species of sunflower, and they’re not from Jerusalem. The tuber, which is the part you’ll want to use, looks more like ginger root but tastes very similar to an artichoke heart. They are great when roasted, and go well in salads and soups. They are also an excellent source of dietary potassium and iron.
#3 – Dandelion Greens – 24%
Yes, those weeds in your garden are the third best way to add prebiotics to your diets. They can be sautéed, steamed, blanched, or brewed up as an herbal tea, and are again good in a salad or soup. Make sure to wash them well if you get them from the garden, or if you prefer you can buy them fresh.
#4 – Raw Garlic – 18%
While cooked garlic can go with virtually any type of cuisine, raw garlic can be a little trickier to work with. There are still plenty of ways to add it to your food though, like putting it in salad dressings, guacamole, salsa, or mincing it up and mixing it into your mashed potatoes. Raw garlic also has a range of other healthy properties, so if you can handle the strong flavor it’s a good addition to your diet.
#5 – Raw Leek – 12%
The onion’s longer, less intensely flavored cousin, leeks can make a tangy addition to your salads, as well as being a vital part of vichyssoise (French leek and potato soup, served cold). Also works well as a garnish, and as an alternative to onions in various recipes to give them an unexpected twist.
#6 – Raw Onion – 9%
Almost everyone loves the smell of cooking onions, but eating them raw can give your food a spicy kick while giving you the benefits of a prebiotic food. Tasty as an ingredient in a fresh salad, a sandwich, as part of your salad dressing, mixed in with sauces and dips, or in gazpacho soup. You can also try mixing them into cooked sides to give the dish an extra zing.
#7 – Raw Asparagus – 5%
Any seasoning that you would normally put on your cooked asparagus will also go well when eating it raw. You can go with the standard companions of pepper and lemon juice, or you can enjoy it as part of a salad with a Parmesan-based dressing. Tastier when very fresh, and the thicker the stems the better.
#8 – Wheat Bran – 5%
You can add wheat bran to many of your favorite baking recipes, like muffins, pancakes, bread, and waffles. You can also add a few tablespoons to soups and stews, on top of your morning bowl of cereal, or mixed in with your yogurt.
#9 – Wheat Flour – 5%
Wheat flour can replace half of the white flour in any recipe. It can also be used when thickening sauces, and when breading fish and meat.
#10 – Banana – 1%
Last on the list, banana has only 1% prebiotic fiber compared to chicory root’s 65%, but it is also an excellent source of potassium. Other than just peeling and eating it, you could try mixing it in with your cereal or yogurt, or making some wheat flour-based banana bread.
So, Should I Add Prebiotic Food to My Diet?
With a number of confirmed health benefits, and many more still being discovered, prebiotic foods can not only help you to get your recommended daily intake of dietary fiber, they can make you an all-around heartier human. By encouraging the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut, you’ll reduce your risk of cancer, absorb more minerals from your food, and you’ll end up with a healthier, happier tummy.