BENEO research (research on fibers and fiber benefits in the U.S., Russia, Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, and Brazil; conducted by HealthFocus International, 2013) shows that close to two thirds of Americans want to maintain a healthy digestion and over 70% of those confirm that it plays a very important role in their shopping decisions. Americans spontaneously associate fibers with satiety and even bowel regularity, and consider that good digestion is a matter of inner well-being.
What are Prebiotics & How Do They Work?
Prebiotics are a small group of fermentable fibers that promote the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria to improve digestive functions and other health benefits. The few scientifically recognized prebiotic dietary fibers include natural chicory root fiber, inulin, and oligofructose, and synthetically produced galactooligosaccharides.
Inulin is a non-digestible carbohydrate that occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, with chicory root an abundant source. These fibers are not broken down in the small intestine and therefore reach the large intestine intact where they serve as “food” for the beneficial intestinal bacteria. The subsequent fermenting process in the gut produces short-chain fatty acids, which have a positive effect on the intestinal tract, and which helps maintain the intestinal mucosa while inhibiting the presence of undesirable bacteria.
However, the beneficial effects go far beyond the function in the intestine, and children can benefit from the positive effects of prebiotic dietary fibers from the day they are born, and even before during pregnancy.
The intestine is the largest organ to aid the body’s own defense system. While it is virtually sterile at birth, bacterial species quickly colonize it to form the so-called microbiota in the gut. This is a critical and essential process, as it may positively impact health in later life by potentially reducing the risk of obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, and allergies.
In addition to helping regulate the body’s inner defense system, the beneficial bacteria also compete with pathogenic germs, thus having a positive influence on intestinal health. But the prebiotic effect doesn’t just improve digestive health—in fact, intact intestinal microbiota also positively influences many other organs and metabolic functions. The latest scientific findings prove, for example, that healthy intestinal microbiota can improve mental function, as well as assist with the absorption of vital nutrients. That’s why it is essential to nourish and strengthen the gut with the aid of prebiotic ingredients.
So-called human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), found in breast milk, are the first prebiotics a baby will ever have. After fats and lactose, these special oligo- and polysaccharides make up the third largest proportion of the “solid” components of breast milk.1 They help the child to develop a good and healthy digestive system. Scientific studies indicate that these soluble fibers also have a positive influence on the inner defense system. It is thought that they minimize both the incidence of infectious diseases and inflammatory reactions. Thus, the prebiotic oligosaccharides in breast milk, together with defense-promoting ingredients such as antibodies, help strengthen the inner defense system of breastfed babies in the most natural way possible.
Prebiotics Protect Against Infections
Even after breastfeeding, children can continue to benefit from the positive properties of prebiotics. In general, dietary fibers promote digestive health by increasing stool volume, improving stool consistency, and supporting regular bowel movements.
The digestive system also benefits from prebiotic dietary fibers in other ways. The short-chain fatty acids produced by fermentation supply the large intestine mucosa with nutrients, and thus support the intestinal barrier function. In addition, they stimulate intestinal motility and digestive activity, so that unwanted food components remain in the intestine for a shorter time. They also lower the pH value of the intestinal environment and thus make it more difficult for undesirable bacteria to settle.
Scientific studies indicate that inulin and oligofructose can also have positive effects on the inner defense system beyond the intestine. For example, a 2002 study showed that regular ingestion of oligofructose was associated with fewer fevers, fewer visits to the doctor due to symptoms associated with diarrhea, fewer febrile colds, and a reduced need for antibiotics in children aged 4-24 months.2 In a further publication and meta-analysis on studies conducted on children aged 0-24 months, the total number of illnesses requiring antibiotics was significantly lower when prebiotics were regularly administered.3
Benefits for All Ages
These results are confirmed by a current intervention study, which shows that 6 grams of prebiotic dietary fiber (Orafti Inulin, BENEO) from the chicory root promotes digestive health and strengthens the resistance of children between three and six years of age, during the winter months.4
Regular intake of Orafti Inulin from the chicory root increased the number of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli known as “good” intestinal bacteria during the study period. Compared to the control group, fever-related episodes requiring a visit to the doctor, as well as sinusitis, occurred significantly less frequently. Another recent scientific study revealed that during antibiotic treatment, prebiotic chicory root fibers keep the level of beneficial bifidobacteria stable or even high because they reduce the usual antibiotic-induced disturbances in the gut microbiota composition.5
Prebiotic ingredients improve the health of children long-term too, because as well as the inner defense-boosting effect on intestinal health, they also help with calcium absorption and thus bone density, and regulate satiety, therefore aiding weight management. Maintaining a healthy weight is important in order to reduce obesity-related health risks, such as heart disease, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes, as well as possible resulting mental health issues.
When it comes to the importance of dietary fiber intake for a healthy nutrition, prebiotic fibers such as inulin and oligofructose naturally promote the intestinal health of children and are vital for digestive health and well-being both in the early years and throughout life.
- Adv Carbohydr Chem Biochem. 2015;72:113-90. doi: 10.1016/bs.accb.2015.08.002. Epub 2015 Nov 11. Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMOS): Structure, Function, and Enzyme-Catalyzed Synthesis. Chen X.
- Saavedra and Tschernia, 2002: Human studies with probiotics and prebiotics: clinical implications. British Journal of Nutrition, Br J Nutr. 2002 May;87 Suppl 2:S241-6.
- Lohner et al. 2014: Prebiotics in healthy infants and children for prevention of acute infectious diseases: s systemic review and meta-analysis. Nutr Rev. 2014 Aug;72(8):523-31.
- Lohner et al, 2018: Inulin-Type Fructan Supplementation of 3 to 6 Year-Old Children Is Associated with Higher Fecal Bifidobacterium Concentrations and Fewer Febrile Episodes Requiring Medical Attention. J Nutr. 2018 Jul 3.
- Soldi et al., 2019: Prebiotic supplementation over a cold season and during antibiotic treatment specifically modulates the gut microbiota composition of 3-6 year-old children. Benef Microbes. 2019 Feb 19:1-12. doi: 10.3920/BM2018.0116. [Epub ahead of print]
Anke Sentko is vice president of regulatory affairs and nutrition Communication, BENEO Group with global responsibility. She also has her own independent consultancy business, SentkoConsult GmbH, Germany, advising in matters related to scientific and regulatory affairs in health and nutrition. Sentko graduated from the University of Bonn, Germany in 1982 with a diploma in Nutrition Science and Economy. For more information visit: www.dietaryfiber.org.