Monday, October 2, 2023

They’re Popping Up Everywhere But Just How Healthy Are Prebiotic Sodas?


Should you crack open a fizzy prebiotic soda, or do their health benefits fall flat? Experts sound off.

From cans of carbonated aloe vera juice to drinks infused with adaptogenic mushrooms, wellness beverages are all the rage in 2023. But have you tried prebiotic sodas? They’re front and center in the supermarket and convenience store coolers — brands like OliPop, Poppi, Turveda, and Mayawell, seemed never-ending. 

The increasing variety of prebiotic soda brands available today is indicative of the burgeoning market. Valued at $6.05 billion in 2021, market research firm Global View Research expects the global prebiotics industry to grow by nearly 15 percent each year until 2030. Which begs the question: are prebiotic bubblies healthy? And just what are they, exactly? 

What are prebiotics?

Although the terms prebiotic and probiotic may seem similar, the two have different functions in the body. 

“Probiotics are good bacteria that are beneficial to the gut. Prebiotics are the indigestible dietary fibers that feed the good bacteria in the gut,” Rhyan Geiger, RDN Owner of Phoenix Vegan Dietitian, tells Ethos

Both prebiotics and probiotics are essential for overall gut health — and the well-being of the body as a whole. Without ample prebiotics, probiotics cannot function optimally, leading to a host of health problems, such as inflammation and digestive issues.

Prebiotic tonic by Mayawell
A number of prebiotic drinks can be found on the market. | Photo by Megan Bucknall on Unsplash

“Your gut microbiome is involved in nutrient absorption, regulating blood sugar and cholesterol levels, mood regulation, and immune functioning,” explains Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, a plant-focused nutrition and wellness expert and co-author of Sugar Shock. “So a healthy gut puts you on the path to a healthy body and mind.”

Since the adult body is unable to create its own probiotics, they must be obtained through diet or supplementation. “All of the gut bacteria that we create naturally are done during childhood,” says Geiger. “As an adult, the best way [to obtain them] is through food or supplementation. Luckily there are a lot of options to choose from when it comes to getting adequate probiotics and prebiotics.” 

Prebiotic foods that support gut health 

Those adhering to a plant-based diet may have a leg — or gut — up on those who don’t largely consume plants and whole foods.

That’s because a number of plant foods naturally contain prebiotics, such as onions, garlic, beans, apples, and wheat bread.

asparagus on cutting board
A number of plant foods like leeks and asparagus naturally contain prebiotics. | Photo by Amy Burk on Unsplash

“However, we know that most people aren’t eating this way. Instead, 60 percent of calories in our diets come from ultra-processed foods like pizza, boxed mac and cheese, chips, and sugary cereals,” says Cassetty. “And 95 percent of Americans don’t include enough fiber in their diets. Additionally, about 90 percent of adults don’t eat enough fruits and veggies, which are abundant in prebiotics.”

Other plant-based foods that naturally contain prebiotics include Jerusalem artichoke, leeks, asparagus, flax seeds, bananas, and oats. “These foods will help feed the good gut bacteria you have,” says Geiger. 

Similarly, probiotics can be obtained through fermented foods like kombucha, yogurt, miso, sauerkraut, pickles, tempeh, kimchi, and sourdough bread.

Do people need prebiotics supplements?

There are no official dietary recommendations for the intake of prebiotics, according to the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics. 

But people should consume at least three to five grams daily in order to reap the health benefits. (Keep in mind that high doses can cause side effects, such as gas, bloating, and diarrhea.) Since all prebiotics are dietary fibers, consuming a well-balanced diet full of fiber should suffice, without the need for added supplements. 

In terms of supplements, there are a number of brands on the market, from Ora Organic’s Trust Your Gut Probiotic & Prebiotic Powder to Gogo’s Prebiotic Fiber Gummy.

Wondering if you should be taking one? According to Cassetty, supplements like these may be helpful, but they’re not a substitute for eating healthier.

“You don’t have to overhaul your diet overnight but try to set a doable goal, and when you achieve it, try another one,” she says. 

Cassetty recommends introducing prebiotics into meals through easy swaps like eating fruit with your usual snack three times a week. “Eating a plant-dominant, mostly whole foods diet is the north star goal,” she adds. “But even small, simple changes are steps in the right direction.”

Similar to other supplements, prebiotic sodas — carbonated drinks that contain the mighty gut booster — are widely touted for their health benefits. They certainly pack flavor, but what about function? Are these colorfully packaged fizzy drinks really all they’re cracked up to be?

Are prebiotic sodas healthy?

Coke and Sprite have been out. (And Diet Coke is definitely out.) Are gut-boosting carbonated beverages laced with prebiotics in? Before you go adding them to your Instacart order, let’s first unpack their health claims.

Although the base ingredients for these drinks vary, one ingredient is usually common: added sugar. 

“A can of prebiotic soda has three to five grams of added sugar compared to 39 grams of added sugar in a can of Coke,” explains Cassetty. “So, drinking a prebiotic soda instead of a sugary soda can help you reduce your added sugar intake and keep it in a healthier range.” 

But the big difference between a can of prebiotic soda and your typical soft drink is the addition of high amounts of prebiotic fiber called inulin — typically from chicory. Inulin is fermented in the large intestine by microbes that help regulate blood sugar levels, inflammation, and even help control appetite.

Olipop carries a variety of prebiotic soda flavors. | Photo by Madalyn Cox on Unsplash

A single can of prebiotic soda can contain up to 9 grams of fiber. While the recommended daily intake for an adult woman is 25 grams of fiber and 38 grams for men, the average American adult consumes just 16 grams per day. When a single soft drink can add more than 50 percent more fiber to your diet than you’re used to, it can cause some issues, namely gas and bloating. Research has also found that too much inulin can actually increase inflammation.

All in all, Cassetty says forgoing sugary drinks in favor of prebiotic sodas is a step in a healthier direction, though. But like with anything, moderation is key.

“But suppose you’re drinking a prebiotic soda as a shortcut instead of working on eating better. In that case, I’d recommend taking steps to eat more fiber-rich foods and plant foods and reducing heavily processed foods, added sugars, and sugar substitutes,” she says.  

“Prebiotic drinks may not have any advantage, and they’re expensive, so you’re paying for something that might not be necessary.” she continues. “Instead, your food dollars could be better spent on more proven methods to boost gut health, such as eating more fiber-filled plant foods and fermented foods.”

When in doubt, consult with your physician first. “I always recommend that everyone check with their doctor before starting or changing their supplement regime,” says Geiger. “Checking with your doctor can ensure you are taking the correct supplements for you.” 

Related on Ethos:


The Complicated Ethics of Eiderdown, the World’s Most Expensive Feathers

Yes, they're warm, but are eiderdown feathers ethical? What's the difference between eiderdown and other down feathers? The world's most expensive down, explained.

Illycaffè Debuts First Regeneratively Sourced Coffee Amid Climate Change Efforts

Italian coffee giant Illycaffè is celebrating International Coffee Day with sustainable coffee cultivation in its latest product, Arabica Selection Brazil Cerrado Mineiro. This marks the company's first coffee offering that is both regeneratively sourced and Regenagri certified.

Probiotics for Lung Health? Why the Lung-Gut Axis Matters

When was your last lung-gut axis check-in? It may be key to your lung health, a probiotic expert says.

Issa Rae and Tazo Partner to Support Independent Coffee Shops and the ‘Communities They Inspire’

In a collaboration aimed at uplifting local communities, actress, producer, and entrepreneur Issa Rae has joined forces with specialty tea brand Tazo.

5 Innovative Shoe Brands Upcycling Trash Into Treasures

From clothing to toys, companies are tackling the planet’s waste problem by upcycling trash into sustainable treasures.