Updated 04 November 2014

Cheers to bad bacteria

Your digestive system is hardly a sexy subject, but if it's ever let you down, you'll know how key it is to your general quality of life.

A healthy gastrointestinal tract is something we often take for granted. But to keep this intricate system firing on all cylinders, it needs a bit of maintenance.

This doesn't involve a sudden, massive overhaul; instead, it requires a gradual process in which you boost the numbers of friendly bacteria in your gut - something which can easily be done with the help of probiotic-rich foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut and tempeh, or supplements.

Research shows that friendly bacteria or probiotics, boost immunity, treat diarrhoea, help those with lactose intolerance and possibly prevent allergies and inflammatory bowel disease. And if you're one of the 51% of South African women who experience digestive disorders, you can certainly benefit from getting an additional dose of probiotics every now and then.

But the friendly bacteria in your GI tract also need fuel to function optimally: by eating fibre-rich foods, you can make sure that the probiotics you're ingesting work more effectively towards protecting you from disease. At the same time, you'll also be giving the good bacteria that are already present in your colon a boost.

How does it work?

Food components that help probiotics to do their job are called "prebiotics". Simply put, prebiotics are non-digestible components that stimulate the growth of good bacteria in the colon. In other words, prebiotics act as food for probiotics.

Two fructo-oligosaccharide compounds have, in recent years, emerged as having very important prebiotic properties. These compounds, called inulin and oligofructose, contain substrates that nourish the beneficial micro-organisms in the gut.

Both inulin and oligofructose are generally classified as dietary fibre. This is because they both simply pass through the GI tract without being absorbed (like other types of dietary fibre). Both also have definite health benefits.

These two fructo-oligosaccharides occur naturally in over 36 000 plants and vegetables. These include chicory, artichokes, asparagus, salsify, leeks, onions and garlic. Chicory is a particularly useful source.

What are the health benefits?

Unlike most other dietary fibres, inulin and oligofructose are selectively fermented by the intestinal flora, i.e. it benefits very specific bacteria in the colon.

Research has shown that these two fructo-oligosaccharides are selective growth media and energy substrates for the Bifidobacteria, which act as good bacteria in terms of human health. By boosting the growth of these good bacteria, the prebiotics help to increase the bacteria's efficiency. It has been shown that the Bifidobacteria group:

  • has an antibacterial effect on pathogens ("harmful" bacteria);
  • helps with the production of the B-vitamins;
  • promotes immunological attack against malignant cells, which cuts the risk for colon cancer. 

Interestingly, preliminary studies are also showing that inulin and oligofructose could have a positive effect on calcium absorption, thereby increasing bone-mineral density.

The fact that the fructo-oligosaccharides have a very low energy value is an added bonus.

How is it applied?

More and more manufacturers of food products and probiotic supplements are starting to recognise the potential of prebiotics. As a result, a trend is starting to emerge in which food and supplement manufacturers are making a point of adding inulin and/or oligofructose to their probiotic products.

Even international companies that aren't specialising in probiotic foods or supplements are recognising the need for more products that have prebiotic qualities. Examples of other types of food to which the addition of prebiotics have been successfully applied include fruit juice, cereals, baby foods, ice cream, biscuits and even chocolate.

A few yoghurt products that contain both pre- and probiotics are already available on South African shop shelves. Be on the lookout for the following terms on yoghurt labels: "prebiotics", "soluble dietary fibre", "inulin", "chicory" and/or "oligofructose". If you buy a product that contains both pre- and probiotics, the benefits are just enhanced.

It also can't hurt to get more fibre from your diet. Fruit, vegetables, wholegrain foods and oat bran are good sources of dietary fibre. Make a point of combining these foods with probiotic-rich foods to make the most of their beneficial properties.

- (Carine van Rooyen, Health24, updated May 2011)


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Lifestyle »

E-cigarettes: Here are five things to know

E-cigarettes have become hugely popular in the past decade, but a rash of vaping-linked deaths and illnesses in the US is feeding caution about a product that's already banned in some places.

Allergy »

Ditch the itch: Researchers find new drug to fight hives

A new drug works by targeting an immune system antibody called immunoglobulin E, which is responsible for the allergic reaction that causes hives.