Probiotics and prebiotics: A brief overview

J Ren Nutr. 2002 Apr;12(2):76-86. doi: 10.1053/jren.2002.31759.


Probiotics and prebiotics are 2 food ingredients that confer physiologic effects through the gastrointestinal tract. Probiotics have been defined as viable microorganisms that (when ingested) have a beneficial effect in the prevention and treatment of specific pathologic conditions. These microorganisms are believed to exert biological effects through a phenomenon known as colonization resistance, whereby the indigenous anaerobic flora limits the concentration of potentially pathogenic (mostly aerobic) flora in the digestive tract. Other modes of action, such as supplying enzymes or influencing enzyme activity in the gastrointestinal tract, may also account for some of the other physiologic effects that have been attributed to probiotics. Conversely, prebiotics are nondigestible food ingredients that beneficially affect host health by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of 1 or a limited number of bacteria in the colon. The prebiotic, fructooligosaccharide (FOS), is found naturally in many foods, such as wheat, onions, bananas, honey, garlic, or leeks. They can also be isolated from chicory root or synthesized enzymatically from sucrose. Fermentation of FOS in the colon results in a large number of physiologic effects including increasing the numbers of bifidobacteria in the colon, increasing calcium absorption, increasing fecal weight, shortening of gastrointestinal transit time, and possibly lowering blood lipid levels. Other effects that have been observed in animal models include an increase in cecal weight and an increase in fecal nitrogen excretion. The increase in bifidobacteria has been assumed to benefit human health by producing compounds to inhibit potential pathogens, by reducing blood ammonia levels, and by producing vitamins and digestive enzymes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Kidney Failure, Chronic / diet therapy
  • Oligosaccharides / therapeutic use*
  • Probiotics / therapeutic use*


  • Oligosaccharides
  • fructooligosaccharide