Prebiotics, Inulin, and FOS: Health Benefits and Concerns

Updated on April 1, 2018
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with a first class honors degree in biology. She often writes about the scientific basis of disease.

Cichorium intybus, the common chicory; chicory root is a great source of inulin
Cichorium intybus, the common chicory; chicory root is a great source of inulin | Source

Inulin, FOS, and Intestinal Bacteria

Our large intestine is home to a huge bacteria population. Most of the bacteria seem to be friendly organisms that help us in some way. They feed on components of food that pass through the small intestine without being digested and absorbed. Prebiotics are food chemicals that provide nutrition for some of the intestinal bacteria. The term is often restricted to nondigestible fibre, which includes inulin and FOS.

Inulin and FOS are types of fructans. FOS is also known as fructooligosaccharide or oligofructose. We can't digest fructans, but some of our intestinal bacteria can break them down in a process known as fermentation. Fructans are thought to have important health benefits for humans. They also have properties that make them useful as food additives.

Onions are a good source of inulin.
Onions are a good source of inulin. | Source

Monosaccharides are single sugar molecules, such as glucose, fructose, and galactose. (The word "sugar" has a different meaning in science than it does in everyday life.) Monosaccharides exist on their own or join together to make new substances.

What Are Fructooligosaccharides and Inulins?

Fructooligosaccharides and inulins are fructans, which are long molecules made of fructose units. Fructans are obtained from plants or produced by food chemists in laboratories.

  • Fructose is a monosaccharide and is the main type of sugar in fruit.
  • Fructooligosaccharides are fructans with a short chain length (generally two to nine fructose molecules).
  • Inulins have longer chains that generally consist of ten to sixty fructose molecules.

The words fructooligosaccharide and inulin are often used in the singular, but each substance actually consists of a range of chemicals with different lengths. The borderline between FOS and inulin classification based on chain length is somewhat variable. In addition, natural inulin often contains a mixture of both short and long chain fructans.

Fructans are made by certain bacteria as well as by plants. The fructans made by bacteria are much longer than plant fructans and are known as levans. A single levan molecule may contain hundreds of thousands of fructose molecules.

Natural sauerkraut is a good source of probiotics.
Natural sauerkraut is a good source of probiotics. | Source

Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics

Although their names sound very similar, prebiotics and probiotics are different from one another. Some researchers feel that we need both in order to be healthy.

  • Prebiotics are nutrients found in food that nourish the good bacteria in our intestine. FOS and inulin are examples of prebiotics.
  • Probiotics are good bacteria that can potentially survive in our large intestine and help us in some way. They're found in foods such as yogurt and natural, refrigerated sauerkraut.

Probiotic bacteria may boost the activity of the immune system, improve the condition of the intestinal lining, reduce intestinal inflammation, and improve digestive health.

Jerusalem Artichokes or Sunchokes: Rich in Inulin

"Inulin" shouldn't be confused with "insulin", which has a completely different structure and function. Inulin is a carbohydrate made by plants. Insulin is a protein made by our pancreas that helps glucose (blood sugar) leave our blood and enter our cells. The cells break the glucose down to produce energy.

Inulin and FOS in Food

Inulin occurs naturally in many plants, especially onion, garlic, chicory root, Jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes, and the blue agave plant. There are also significant amounts in leeks, dandelion root, burdock, bananas, and asparagus. FOS is found in many plants, too, because they can easily convert inulin into shorter fructans.

In the food industry, inulin is often obtained from the roots of the common chicory. The inulin can be broken down in a lab to make FOS. Inulin can also be made artificially from sucrose (table sugar) molecules. A sucrose molecule consists of a glucose molecule joined to a fructose molecule.

How to Cook Jerusalem Artichokes

Dietary Benefits of Inulin and Fructooligosaccharide

Fructans are considered to be a type of dietary fibre, since they are long molecules that we can't digest. The food industry loves plant-type fructans, for a variety of reasons.

Shorter fructans have a sweet taste but don't contribute calories to our body because we can't digest them. They are sometimes used as sweeteners for food. They are safe for diabetics and don't cause cavities.

Longer fructans are either not sweet or only mildly sweet. However, they give food the texture and mouthfeel that are usually supplied by fat, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for added fat in the food.

Bananas contain inulin.
Bananas contain inulin. | Source

Prebiotic Benefits of Fructans

Although our bodies can use fructose as an energy source, we can't use fructans for energy. Fructan molecules are too large to be absorbed thought the lining of the small intestine, where the rest of our food is absorbed. In addition, we lack enzymes that can break the bonds joining fructose molecules together in fructans, so we can't digest them into smaller pieces.

Some of the bacteria living in our large intestine can break down fructans, however. Inulin and fructooligosaccharides appear to promote the growth of friendly intestinal bacteria by providing them with food. They seem to have their strongest effect on bacteria belonging to the bifidobacteria group.

The blue agave plant is a good source of inulin. The plant is also used to make tequila.
The blue agave plant is a good source of inulin. The plant is also used to make tequila. | Source

Other Possible Health Benefits of Fructans

Research suggests that inulin and/or FOS have additional health benefits. These may be produced by the increased population of friendly bacteria or they may arise due to a different reason. Some of the research into the benefits of inulin and FOS has been done in rodents. The results may apply to humans as well, but this isn't necessarily true.

  • Fructans may lower the level of triglycerides, or fats (a type of lipid), in the blood. Having a high blood triglyceride level increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Fructans relieve constipation by increasing the volume of stool.
  • They may increase the absorption of minerals such as calcium and magnesium from the intestine.
  • In addition, they may modulate the activity of the immune system in the intestine, thereby helping people with inflammatory bowel disease. Modulation is a process in which the overactivity or underactivity of the immune system is corrected.
  • Research in rats indicates that oligofructose is useful in weight loss. One research project found that oligofructose also causes weight loss in humans, but more research in people is needed.

One analysis of clinical trials in humans found that inulin lowered the triglyceride and cholesterol level in the blood of people with high amounts amounts of these chemicals but not in people with normal amounts.

Garlic is another good source of inulin.
Garlic is another good source of inulin. | Source

Prebiotic Concerns

The amount of inulin and FOS that the large intestine can tolerate is limited. Bacteria break down fructans by the process of fermentation, which produces gas. If too much gas is produced a person may experience bloating, flatuence, and diarrhea. The seriousness of the problem depends on the type and amount of fructan that's been ingested, the types of bacteria living in the large intestine, and the ability of the person's intestine to absorb excess gas.

The tendency of fructans to cause diarrhea might actually be an advantage in people who are suffering from constipation. They've been used to help elderly people with this problem, for example. Although inulin and FOS are considered to be safe in normal food amounts, anyone considering taking them in a supplement form should check with their doctor first.

Prebiotics support the growth of good bacteria, but it's been suggested that they might provide food for bad bacteria, too. There doesn't seem to be any scientific evidence that prebiotics increase the number of bad bacteria, however. Research suggests that prebiotics such as fructans have health advantages and not disadvantages, except for their ability to produce digestive upset if eaten in excess. The "excess" amount will vary from individual to individual.

The root of the greater burdock contains inulin.
The root of the greater burdock contains inulin. | Source

Fructans in a Healthy Diet

The foods that contain inulin and FOS are healthy foods for many reasons. Nutritionists highly recommend that we eat whole, unprocessed foods that come from a wide variety of plants. In this way we'll obtain not only the fructans but also the many other nutrients that are present in the plants.

"Functional" foods are those that have had a substance added to them to provide health benefits. Some functional foods contain added inulin or FOS. It will be interesting to discover whether ingesting these foods offers any advantages to eating lots of foods that are naturally high in fructans. Taking concentrated inulin or FOS in supplements is a special situation and should be discussed with a doctor.

References

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Linda Crampton

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      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the visit, Kim. I'm glad that the article was helpful for you!

      • Kim Maravich profile image

        Kim Maravich 

        2 years ago from Cranberry Township, PA

        I'm late to this hub, but I wanted to thank you for your information. I was reading about inulin recently, and your information helped me to understand it better. I also appreciate the video on cooking Jerusalem artichokes!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you so much for the lovely comment, Helen! I appreciate it very much. Thank you for the vote, too.

      • Seeker7 profile image

        Helen Murphy Howell 

        5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

        Excellent hub and packed full of information. What I loved about your hubs, is not only their interest factor, but you handle difficult subjects so well you put it across so that everyone can understand the issues at hand. This is not an easy thing to do, so I really take my hat off to you for this wonderful talent you have!

        Fascinating hub + voted up!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Martie. I appreciate your visit and comment a great deal!

      • MartieCoetser profile image

        Martie Coetser 

        5 years ago from South Africa

        Awe-inspiring interesting! Alicia, I always learn so much in your hubs. Finally I have a clue why garlic turns my stomach upside down, not to talk about the gas caused by onions, cabbage, etc. Brilliant!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the comment and the vote, Eddy. I hope you enjoy your day, too!

      • Eiddwen profile image

        Eiddwen 

        5 years ago from Wales

        Oh so very interesting Alicia ;voted up and enjoy your day.

        Eddy.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Deb. Yes, I agree - unless someone has a specific health problem that requires a supplement as a medical treatment, unprocessed foods are the best way to obtain nutrients. Thanks for the comment!

      • aviannovice profile image

        Deb Hirt 

        5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

        Great info! Foods in their natural form, and especially unprocessed is surely best. Thanks once again for the health talk!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, drbj. Thanks for the visit and the comment. Yes, there are so many interesting things that we could learn and so little time available!

      • drbj profile image

        drbj and sherry 

        5 years ago from south Florida

        Prebiotics and probiotics. So much good information, Alicia, and so little time. Thanks for your excellent research and explanations.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the comment and the vote, Gail.

      • Gail Meyers profile image

        Gail Meyers 

        5 years ago from Kansas City - United States

        This is very well written and informative hub, Alicia. I did not know which foods contained FOS. Thanks for the information. Voted up.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the kind comment, Faith Reaper. I appreciate the share and the hugs as well!

      • Faith Reaper profile image

        Faith Reaper 

        5 years ago from southern USA

        What a wealth of great information here. Thanks for explaining the difference between the prebiotics and the probiotics, as my sister's doctor has her taking one or the other, so I will share this great information here. It is obvious you care a lot about these types of health issues and thank you for sharing your knowledge with us all.

        Vote dup ++++ and sharing

        Hugs,

        Faith Reaper

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the comment, Pamela. Thanks for the vote and the share as well! I appreciate your visit.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        5 years ago from Sunny Florida

        This is really a very interesting hub and you explained everything so well. I learned several things from this hub. Voted up and shared.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Bill, thank you so much for the lovely comment! I find biology fascinating and love trying to help other people understand and appreciate it. I would change my HubPages user name if I could. It seems rude to tell people that I'm really Linda, not Alicia, when they're "talking" to me on HubPages! I chose my pen name when I was still new to online writing and hadn't thought about my online identity carefully. Thanks for the vote, the share and the pin - as always, I appreciate them all. I hope you have a great weekend, too.

      • bdegiulio profile image

        Bill De Giulio 

        5 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Alicia. Okay, clarify something for me. I know you have a degree in biology and teach high school, but are sure you're not a doctor. Your knowledge on topics that seem so complicated and confusing is amazing. You have an uncanny ability to put these topics into terms that even I can understand. I always learn so much from your hubs.

        Hey, on another unrelated topic, I just noticed that your name is Linda, yet we all refer to you by your pen-name here, Alicia. I can't believe that I hadn't noticed this before. Anyway, great job. Voted up, shared, pinned, etc. Have a great weekend.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much, pinto2011. I appreciate your comment!

      • pinto2011 profile image

        Subhas 

        5 years ago from New Delhi, India

        Hi Alicia! These are very resourceful and helpful study of these three ingredients.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Sue. Yes, some people haven't heard about prebiotics, or they get the word confused with probiotics! Thank you very much for the vote, the share and the pin.

      • Sue Bailey profile image

        Susan Bailey 

        5 years ago from South Yorkshire, UK

        I was talking about prebiotics the other week to my daughter and wondering if I should buy some. I've known about inulin for years but never heard of fructans. My daughter told me that I meant probiotics not prebiotics. She hadn't heard of them. One up for mum! Voted up and pinned and shared.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the comment, Bill. I'm always amazed by your visits so soon after I publish a hub! Thank you very much for the support.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Very helpful information, Alicia. I'm always a bit amazed that you can take complicated subject matter and make it so easy to understand. Thank you for this.

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