Differences between probiotics and prebiotics


The community of microorganisms that live in our intestine, or microbiota, is called the "second genome." These symbiotic microorganisms perform many important functions in human life: they synthesize vitamins, metabolize plant-derived compounds, train the immune system and fight infections, among others. Without our intestinal flora or microbiome, life as we know it today would be impossible. Probiotics and prebiotics are increasingly attracting the attention of the general public due to their various properties in maintaining a healthy microbiota. Anyway, although they sound similar and only differ by one letter, the two concepts are different and their application also differs.

In this article we are going to explain to you what are the differences between probiotics and prebiotics.

Differences between probiotics and prebiotics

differences between probiotics and prebiotics

Probiotics are microorganisms, prebiotics are foods

According to renowned experts, probiotics are live microorganisms that, administered in sufficient quantities, have a positive impact on human well-being. The main area of ​​action of probiotics is the digestive system, where their objective is to maintain or restore the ideal state of the microbiota.. Probiotics have the ability to protect the intestinal system, improve digestion and optimize intestinal performance, among many other benefits. While lactobacilli and bifidobacteria are widely recognized as probiotic microorganisms, there are many others as well.

It is crucial to highlight that probiotics are living organisms. While certain foods contain natural probiotics, it is important to note that the food itself is not the probiotic. Although the term is frequently used to refer to supplements and ingredients, this usage is inaccurate.

In contrast, prebiotics refer to particular plant fibers that function as “fertilizers” and promote the proliferation of beneficial intestinal bacteria. It is important to note that prebiotics are ingredients, not living organisms. These substances are found naturally in numerous fruits and vegetables, but can also be obtained through the use of supplements.

It is important to emphasize that probiotics consist of live microorganisms, excluding their components and metabolic byproducts. For example, cell wall components and vitamins synthesized by bacteria, which are released into the environment after their death or during their vital processes, They do not fall into the category of probiotics. Instead, a lesser-known term, “postbiotic,” is used to describe these cases.

They act differently

The intestinal microbial community is directly affected by probiotics, which have the ability to influence its stability and composition. These live microorganisms settle in vacant areas, decompose plant fibers, combat harmful microorganisms through bactericides and ecological competition, and provide other benefits. Upon entering the digestive tract, They occupy the designated space and thrive, ultimately benefiting our overall well-being.

On the contrary, prebiotics are food substrates that stimulate the proliferation of beneficial bacteria in the intestine. Their impact, although still very beneficial, is more indirect compared to that of probiotics. It is important to note that this distinction does not imply superiority of one over the other but highlights another fundamental difference between probiotics and prebiotics.

They have different requirements

probiotics and prebiotics

For a microorganism to be classified as a probiotic, it must meet certain criteria:

  • On a scientific level, is accurately classified by genus, species and strain. Furthermore, it does not have any virulence factors that could pose a threat to human health.
  • This product has undergone rigorous scientific testing, both in controlled laboratory environments and with human subjects. It has been shown to withstand various packaging and consumption conditions without negative effects.
  • Its quantity is sufficient to produce a positive impact on the guest. It is capable of resisting the conditions of the digestive system and can become part of the microbiota, even temporarily.

On the other hand, there are specific criteria that must be met for a substance to be classified as a prebiotic:

  • We humans can't digest it, meaning it travels through the stomach and reaches the large intestine, which is where most of the intestinal microbiota resides.
  • The microorganisms that reside in the human body have the ability to ferment it.
  • A selective stimulation of “good” bacteria is observed, leading to increased activity and growth.

When it comes to probiotics, it is crucial to emphasize the microorganism's ability to become part of the human microbiota, especially within a designated time period. On the contrary, The main characteristic of prebiotics is their function as a nutritional source of beneficial bacteria in the body. The examples serve to illustrate the distinctions between probiotics and prebiotics.

Examples of probiotics and prebiotics

It is important to keep in mind that probiotics are made up of live microorganisms. Therefore, when providing examples, we refer specifically to different types of bacteria and yeasts, focusing on their genera and species.

  • Lactobacillus
  • Bifidobacterium
  • saccharomyces
  • Streptococcus
  • Streptococcus
  • Escherichia

On the contrary, prebiotics are substances found in foods. Some examples worth noting include:

  • Fructans
  • Galactooligosaccharides
  • Oligosaccharides derived from glucose and starch
  • Other oligosaccharides

Foods rich in probiotics are mainly the result of fermentation, including kefir, yogurt, certain cheeses, bread, kimchi, and kombucha. On the contrary, prebiotic foods, rich in fiber, are predominantly of plant origin. Notable examples include leafy green vegetables, various fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts.

There is a certain level of risk associated with the use of probiotics


The potential dangers associated with probiotics and prebiotics must be addressed as a final distinction between the two. While most people can consume them safely, there are certain circumstances in which it is not advisable. Therefore, We strongly recommend seeking the guidance of a health professional before incorporating any of them into your routine.

According to scientific research, certain probiotics have the potential to multiply excessively or invade the bloodstream, resulting in severe negative responses among people who are already in a weakened state before treatment. Caution is essential, especially when it comes to patients suffering from AIDS, terminal illnesses, cancer, pre-existing gastric conditions and pregnant women, as well as other specific demographic groups. In essence, If there is any indication of immunosuppression, it is recommended to refrain from consuming probiotics.

I hope that with this information you can learn more about the differences between probiotics and prebiotics.