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What are prebiotics and what foods are natural sources?

Red wine has shown prebiotic benefits

You may know about the importance of consuming probiotics in keeping your digestive system healthy, but prebiotics can be equally important.

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are foods that feed the probiotics (or "good" bacteria) that are already in your digestive system.

All prebiotic foods are carbohydrates, and many of them are very high in soluble fiber. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes are all good sources of prebiotics, along with some foods like honey and raw apple cider vinegar that boost the growth of the good bacterial colonies that keep you healthy.

Even red wine has been shown to have prebiotic benefits. Researchers in one study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a daily glass of red wine not only inhibited the growth of bad bacteria associated with IBS and colon cancer, but also promoted the growth of beneficial bacteria such as bifidobacteria. They concluded:

This study showed that red wine consumption can significantly modulate the growth of select gut microbiota in humans, which suggests possible prebiotic benefits associated with the inclusion of red wine polyphenols in the diet.

Studies have shown that prebiotics may be beneficial in strengthening the immune system, improving calcium and other mineral absorption, reducing some cancer risks and treating some disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, among other benefits.

Some of the top food sources of prebiotics include:

  • acacia gums (gum Arabic)
  • chicory root
  • garlic
  • jicama
  • onion
  • honey
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • wild yams
  • maple syrup
  • dandelion greens
  • legumes
  • kiwifruit
  • apples
  • oats
  • barley
  • apple cider vinegar
  • almonds
  • brown rice
  • whole wheat
  • asparagus
  • artichokes
  • leeks
  • banana
  • red wine

In most cases, foods are higher in prebiotics before cooking. Raw onions contain 8.6% prebiotics by weight, for instance, versus 5% prebiotic fiber for cooked.

Corn and soybeans can also be good sources of prebiotics, but be sure to buy organic to avoid GMOs.

Breastmilk is another source of prebiotics. Breastmilk contains a type of prebiotic compound called galactooligosaccharide, or GOS, which provides nutrition for the baby's colonies of beneficial intestinal bacteria. GOS also helps prevent pathogenic bacteria from attaching to the lining of the baby's digestive tract.

Some food additives also serve as prebiotics. Inulin is an excellent prebiotic, for instance. Inulin occurs naturally in foods such as Jerusalem artichoke, jicama, and chicory root, but it is also used as a food additive to increase fiber and support probiotics in foods like yogurt.

Remember that sugars naturally feed the "bad" bacteria, so do your best to minimize your sugar consumption.

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