The class of complex carbohydrates known as prebiotics is basically nothing more than food for probiotics, the new “It” bacteria credited with providing humans with stronger immunity and better digestion. The idea now is that consuming prebiotics could stimulate the growth of good bacteria in the human gut in a natural, dietary way.
But prebiotics are gaining a reputation in their own right as possessing fiber-like properties. And because they're largely nondigestible, they have a low caloric value and can be efficiently used in energy foods. This opens up a whole new range of possibilities for food scientists and manufacturers looking to increase the amount of fiber Americans get.
These compounds are already in many processed foods, but federal regulations prevent manufacturers from claiming them as a source of fiber. Roger Clemens, spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists and a nutrition expert, says prebiotics like inulin and oligofructose are limited to a supporting role as a processing ingredient.
“In beverages, they usually provide mouth feel; other times they keep things soft and moist,” he said. “They're just not labeled on the package as having prebiotic capabilities or as a dietary fiber.”
The Food and Drug Administration is considering broadening its definition of dietary fiber to include these newcomers, but that could take many months.