Every time you eat raw onions, garlic, asparagus, leeks, or
dandelion greens, jicama, or Jerusalem artichoke (Now, who eats those on a regular basis?),
you not only feed yourself, but you also feed trillions of tiny microscopic friends that:
make sure your digestion is happily humming along,
keep infections at bay, and
ensure that your brain is firing on all cylinders,
among countless other wonders.
We give a special name to these foods.
What are Prebiotics vs. Probiotics
Prebiotics are the fiber that occurs in a variety of foods and feed the healthy bacteria already living in your gut.
Humans can’t digest this fiber and it serves no nutritive purpose. Our digestive enzymes and pancreas secretions can’t break down prebiotic fiber, but there is someone that can. In fact, there are trillions of little guys than can digest prebiotic fiber. Guess who?
Our intestinal bacteria are able to ferment or metabolize this prebiotic fiber and in turn, create better health for you. You probably didn’t know you had such a massive army at your disposal. And, an army you have to feed!
Feed them well and they will take care of you. This is the true benefit of consuming fiber. All prebiotics are fiber, but not all fiber are prebiotics. I discuss which foods are rich in prebiotics, below.
“Prebiotics are, quite simply, indigestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and maintenance of beneficial gut microbiota. I suppose “indigestible by humans” is more accurate, because they are being digested – just not by our host digestive system (about 90% of prebiotic fiber makes it through the small intestine intact). Instead, it’s those oft-thankless, microbial workhorses of our colons doing all the work while we reap the benefits. They are getting free meals, so don’t feel too bad about putting them to work.”
In contrast, probiotics provide a direct infusion of healthy bacteria that were not there before and can help counter the destruction that antibiotics cause. Probiotics are found in yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods.
An introduction to some common fermented foods rich in probiotics:
|Live microorganisms.||Non-living, non-digestible.|
|Bacteria or yeast cultures.||Fiber from plant sources.|
|Found in the stomach and small intestine.||Found in the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine.|
|Fight the bad microorganisms.||Feed the good microorganisms.|
The Importance of Feeding the Bacteria in Our Gut
Though Russian-born biologist, Élie Mechnikov, discovered a direct link between the health of the bacteria in our body and our own health over 100 years ago, it wasn’t until 2008 that some of America’s best scientists began exploring these connections in earnest with the National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project. Daily, new discoveries are being made and though the research is still in its infancy, it is clear that the health of your gut is important, very important.
Death begins in the colon. – Élie Mechnikov (1845-1916)– Élie Mechnikov (1845-1916)
- The health of your gut microbiome determines your overall level of wellness. We would be hard-pressed to name a physiological function or health parameter that is not impacted by the gut microbiome. For example, the health of your skin is impacted by the health of your gut, as I wrote about here: What Does Your Gut Have to Do with Your Skin Health: A Lot…
- Short-chain fatty acids, the byproducts of the digestion of prebiotic fiber fermentation by our gut flora, improve our health in many ways. For example, butyric acid, a fatty acid produced by our gut bacteria, improves the health of our intestinal lining.
- By feeding the good bacteria, we bolster their population, making them better able to outflank the armies of bad bacteria. The greater the health, and numbers, of these bacteria, the better they are able to fight the next flu or possible bout of food poisoning that comes our way.
I often hear about the need to consume fiber, but it wasn’t until delving deeper into prebiotics that I was able to better understand the true benefits of the right type of fiber.
Inulin and oligofructose are two soluble fibers that occur together in foods rich in prebiotics and are what you will most often see listed on labels of packaged foods. They have a slightly sweet taste – and are found naturally in most root vegetables. Tiny amounts occur in onions or garlic with much larger amounts found in starchy roots such as chicory root or Jerusalem artichoke.
- Enhance the absorption of minerals in the body. Prebiotics have been shown to increase the uptake of magnesium, calcium, and possibly iron, leading to an increase in bone density among other health benefits.
- Ferment in the gut to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFA help regulate sodium and water absorption and nourish your intestinal lining to improve conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn’s disease.
- Increase the number of two types of bacteria in your gut microbiome: bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. A healthy population of bifidobacteria is associated with decreased illness and the suppression of potentially pathogenic and putrefactive bacteria in adults, reducing colon cancer risk.
Top Foods for Natural Prebiotics
That are many different types of prebiotic fibers and scientists can’t agree on which ones are the most beneficial. They have agreed, however, that to officially call a fiber prebiotic it has to:
- Be non-digestible. This means that it has to pass through the stomach without being broken down by gastric acids or enzymes.
- Be able to be fermented or metabolized by the intestinal bacteria.
- Have to confer health benefits. An increase in activity and numbers of bifidobacteria and lactic acid bacteria is behind the increase in health conditions, such as improving digestion, enhancing mineral absorption, and strengthening the immune system.
The following table lists the top prebiotic foods and their fiber content.
|100 GRAMS, RAW||INULIN + OLIGOFRUCTOSE FIBER|
|Acacia Powder||92.0 g|
|Chicory Root Powder||64.5 g|
|Jerusalem Artichoke||31.5 g|
|Dandelion Greens||24.3 g|
The numbers for acacia powder and chicory root powder are high but, realize when using either of these root powders as a supplement, a typical dosage size is 1 tablespoon. For acacia powder, this equals 6 grams of fiber.
Raw foods will have more prebiotic fibers than cooked.
Here’s a list of the top prebiotic foods. Recipes ideas are in the following sections.
- Acacia powder is made by grinding up acacia gum, a natural gum of the hardened sap of various species of the acacia tree. Available in health food stores, acacia powder can be consumed on its own or as a supplement. It is important to consume the powder — as much as 1 tablespoon — with at least 8 ounces of fluids, such as water or juice. Because it is high in fiber, you need to make sure that you drink enough water throughout the day to reduce the risk of constipation.
- Asparagus is a welcoming item at local farmers’ markets; it signals warmer days with summer just around the corner. Snack on them raw or learn to ferment them to garner the benefits of both prebiotics and probiotics.
- Chicory root has been used as a coffee substitute for generations, especially when coffee was unavailable. It is the same plant that has endive for the leaves. Not only is it high in Vitamin C, but it also has the highest concentration of inulin of any other plant that contains inulin. The root is grown and harvested much like sugar beets. The inulin is caramelized during the roasting process and converted into fruit sugar. It does not contain caffeine. Some sources say there’s a drop in available inulin (10-20%), others say that roasting does not destroy inulin.
- Dandelion greens, those nasty weeds growing in your lawn, can be picked when the leaves are young and tender; just don’t pick from lawns that have been treated with pesticides. Finely chop and add to your spring salad.
- Garlic has an endless list of health benefits, and being full of prebiotics is just one of them. Keep a jar of fermented garlic paste handy in your refrigerator for a quick addition to dishes.
- Jerusalem artichoke is a species of the sunflower family and is rich in potassium and iron. Peeled and chopped, they make a great addition to salads.
- Jicama is an edible root that resembles a turnip. It has thin brown skin and a crisp, white juicy flesh that’s mild in flavor. It tastes somewhat like a pear and is great to snack on.
- Leeks are a member of the onion family and have a sweet, delicate flavor. Use them like you would onions and garlic, adding them to sauteed greens or fermenting the younger, more tender ones into a delicious relish.
- Onions, both raw and cooked are high in prebiotic fiber and add flavor to just about any dish. Without even realizing it, you probably have been eating this prebiotic daily.
Foods high in prebiotics have been a part of our diets since prehistoric times. A typical hunter-gatherer consumed as much as 135 grams of inulin, a type of prebiotic fiber, each day.
Are Prebiotics for Everyone?
Perhaps not. They sound promising but know your gut health and eat accordingly.
If you have SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacteria Overgrowth), Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), or FODMAPs intolerances, feeding more bacteria may make symptoms worse. With a compromised gut, the bacteria have to slowly be nurtured and rebalanced.
By and large, most of us – myself included – don’t get enough prebiotics in our diet. And, while there is no consensus on ideal daily servings, recommendations range from 4-12 grams daily for digestive health support. However, don’t run out and buy pounds of Jerusalem artichokes and add them to every dish. You’d be asking for trouble. Some of us have an impaired ability to handle fiber and must slowly up our intake.
Below are suggestions for a variety of ways to incorporate prebiotics into your diet. When you put a meal together, aim to include both a food prebiotic-rich food and food containing probiotics.
And keep in mind diversity. The greater the number of species, the better the health of the host. So, eat a variety of foods rich in both prebiotics and probiotics.
Now for a variety of ways to add prebiotics to your diet: Fermented, Raw Snacks and Powdered.
Feed Your Microbial Friends Pickled or Fermented Foods: Probiotics + Prebiotics = SuperFood
Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, Kimchi, and fermented vegetables are not only natural probiotics but when made with foods rich in prebiotics become Microbiome SuperFoods. Here are a few to get you started.
1. Include Sauerkraut with Your Meals
Prebiotic-rich onions and garlic are common ingredients in sauerkraut for a reason. Not only do they kick start the fermentation process, but they provide food for the bacteria that are working to preserve your sauerkraut. This recipe of mine includes carrots for sweetness – great for first-time sauerkraut makers – and, garlic, a prebiotic.
2. Add a Crunchy Condiment: Fermented Asparagus
We know Spring has arrived when local asparagus is plentiful at the farmer’s markets. Try your hand at this simple ferment.
This recipe by Lorraine of Evermine Occasions makes use of my current favorite fermentation book, Fermented Vegetables by Kirsten Shockey & Christopher Shockey, which calls for 2 tablespoons of brine from a batch of sauerkraut to provide a bit of liquid and jumpstart the fermentation process.
3. Flavor Dishes with Fermented Garlic Paste
I highly recommend adding relishes and pastes to your fermentation repertoire – yes, there’s more to life than sauerkraut – for they make meal preparation so much easier. This is a great one to start with. Sauteing greens? Stir in some fermented garlic paste. Easy Peasy.
This recipe is by Lorraine who blogs at SweetAllium.
“What’s more, fermentation is designed to capitalize on the bounty of the harvest. So what better way to make use of an abundant garlic season than to ferment a big batch, and jar it up so you can share the harvest.”
4. Pasta with Dandelion Pumpkin Seed Pesto
“People can be protective about their pesto recipes and approaches. A little extra garlic or the special way they grind down the pesto? It’s the magic touch. This is largely because pesto is so adaptable: you can create a signature pesto of your own using different nuts, greens, cheeses, and spices. When I found myself with a nice bunch of dandelion greens, I thought I’d try and make a pesto with them.”
5. Try Some Thyme for Leeks Sauerkraut or Relish
All right, this is a promo for my book. There are recipes for prebiotic-rich Thyme for Leeks Sauerkraut and Thyme for Leeks Relish, in my eBook: Fermentation Made Easy! Mothwatering Sauerkraut
In fact, 11 of the 17 recipes use a prebiotic.
I love to spread the relish on a ham or turkey sandwich. Delish! The Thyme for Leeks Sauerkraut is great with poultry dishes.
6. Start Your Day With A Breakfast Chutney
The people behind the Perfect Pickler, one of the many jars designed for fermentation, put together this recipe to take advantage of the prebiotics found in jicama.
“Our recipe ingredient this month is jicama, one of my top stars in fresh brine fermenting. It is the tuberous root of a legume plant that has a crunchy, watery texture like a cross between a water chestnut and Asian pear. Its mild flavor is tinged with an ever so slight sweetness, which is courtesy of our favorite prebiotic fiber friend, inulin. It is a prebiotic that we are going to make into a specialty pickle: I call them prebiotic.”
7. Top That Hamburger, Hot Dog, or Taco with Pickled Onions
Danielle at Fermented Food Lab is always coming up with delicious fermented food recipes. I love to add lemon juice along with the brine.
“Recently I joined a CSA (community supported agriculture) where we get a big box of local, organic fruit and vegetables every week. I ended up getting a big bag of red onions and had no idea how my husband and I would eat them all before they went bad. So… of course, I decided to ferment them!! I’ve had pickled onions before and they were very tasty. This uses the lacto-fermentation method which basically means fermenting in a salt brine. It’s super easy, basic, and only requires 3 ingredients.”
Munch on Prebiotic-Rich Raw Vegetables
8. Add Jicama and Jerusalem Artichokes to Your Next Vegetable Platter
Jicama sticks and Jerusalem artichoke can easily be added to a vegetable platter or grated into salads. Make a creamy dip using yogurt or sour cream and you’ve also added probiotics.
9. Toss Some Dandelion Greens on Your Spring Salad
“In this springtime salad, dandelion greens are tossed with a warm roasted garlic dressing, tangy goat cheese, and toasted pine nuts for melt-in-your-mouth results.”
10. Try Some Jicama Relish with Steak or Fish
You can’t beat this combo for a prebiotic punch: jicama, onion, green onions and tomatoes.
11. Dip Chips Into Mango Avocado Salsa (with Jicama)
Everything you would want to know about jicama; the recipe is at the end.
12. Top Your Next Pizza with Caramelized Onions
This may not be raw, but cooked onions are still high in prebiotic fibers. Simply Recipes gives you all the tips for perfect caramelized onions and suggests using them to top a steak, making onion soup, tarts, pizza, or onion. Hungry anyone?
“Caramelizing onions, by slowly cooking them in a little olive oil until they are richly browned, is a wonderful way to pull flavor out of the simplest of ingredients.”
Use Prebiotic Vegetable Powders to Power Your Microbiome
A whole new world has been opened for me with vegetable powders. They were not even on my radar until a holistic physician and curious thinker started this family business: Dr. Cowan’s Garden. From the website:
“A Vegetable Revolution with Deep Roots in the Ancient Past”
“Vegetables give you the power to live your life with vitality and freedom from disease. To protect their vitality, we dehydrate our organically grown vegetables with low heat and store them as powders in Miron violet-glass jars. The secret to availing yourself of their disease-fighting nutrients is diversity: Eat small amounts of a wide variety of plants daily, especially perennial vegetables, rather than a large amount at one or two sittings. “
“Because perennial vegetables grow for years, they have wider-spreading and deeper-seeking roots that take up more nutrients in the soil. These plants have significantly higher levels of minerals, vitamins, and protein than annual vegetables. In addition to perennials, we powder the most nutritious annual vegetables available, such as kale, Swiss chard, tomatoes, and leeks.”
“Some of the healthiest people who ever lived – from Native Americans to traditional Africans — consumed such plant diversity. Our vegetable powders make this approach easy, delicious, and fun. You’ll love how their concentrated flavors enrich any dish.”
They not only make for a fun way to preserve the harvest but, are easy to use. They can be stirred into soups and stews, sprinkled on just about anything, blended into smoothies, or folded in rice. They are a great item to have in your bag when traveling, and for those dealing with picky eaters, can be hidden in dishes.
13. Stir Leek Powder into Chicken Soup
The concentrated flavor of the leeks is a simple way to add richness – and prebiotics – to homemade soup.
DIY Prebiotic Powders
You may purchase leek powder here or use the following guidelines to dehydrate your own.
- Use vegetables harvested at the peak of the season.
- Dehydrate within 48 hours of harvesting.
- Dehydrate on low heat (105 degrees) to retain the most vitamin and mineral content possible.
- Blanch greens before drying to release antinutrients.
- Bake pumpkins and squashes to maximize flavor and digestibility.
- Blanch or lightly steam carrots and beets.
- Leave tomatoes, leeks, and onions raw.
- Store away from light. The five-star method is Miron violet-glass jars, but freezer bags should also do the trick.
Step-by-step instructions on how to dehydrate leeks though, to best preserve nutrients, I would dehydrate at 100 degrees:
Leek Powder, by Urban Nettle
14. Sip a Steaming Cup of Roasted Chicory Coffee
“It may have been made famous by New Orleans coffee shops and cafés, but roasted Chicory root beverages made from this blue-flowered perennial have been created for centuries.”
Mountain Rose Herbs, who sell the roasted root, share a few recipes:
15. Mix Acacia Powder with Fresh Juice to Increase Your Daily Fiber Intake
Acacia powder is a good source of fiber and is commonly taken to alleviate constipation and the gut bugs love this stuff.
If you’re eating prebiotic foods, there’s probably no real need to supplement with a prebiotic powder, such as acacia powder. If not, a supplement might be helpful. It is recommended that you start small – 1 teaspoon – and work your way up. A 1-tablespoon dose supplies 6 grams of fiber. Mix with 8 ounces of fluid and drink plenty of fluids throughout the day.
References on Prebiotics
Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health Benefits
PubMed: Current Data with Inulin-type Fructans and Calcium, Targeting Bone Health in Adults
Inulin: Friend or Foe
The Microbiome Diet by Raphael Kellman, MD
Last update on 2023-10-03 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API