Pre, fi, pro, fum


From its position of honour, top and centre, the all-caps, blocky statement definitely provides an in-your-face-ness that the brand name–all lowercase, flowing script, and  funky spelling–just as definitely does not.

That font and colour aren’t quite right, but you get the idea. They’re going for the handwritten-label-on-a-jar-of-homemade-jam aesthetic.

Just below the name, the “prebiotic” thing appears again.


It makes a third appearance in the list of features below the flavour identifier (DARK CHOCOLATE, if you must know): the only feature of four that is not the absence of something.


In a world of limited label space and even-more-limited consumer attention, why is it worth hitting “prebiotic” three times? To answer that, I’d need to know what the word means. I’ve heard of pro-biotic, but pre-biotic is new to me. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Probiotics are live microorganisms that are intended to have health benefits when consumed or applied to the body. – National Institutes of Health
(Note the wording: “live microorganisms that are intended to have health benefits” rather than “live microorganisms that have health benefits.” Ed.)

prebiotic: a substrate that is selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit – nature reviews gastroenterology and hepatology
(Health benefits are now conferred, not just intended. Progress! Ed.)
(The author, Glenn R. Gibson, is no [known] relation. Ed.)
(What’s with the lowercase, run-on journal title? Are they kidding? Ed.)

It turns out that the definition of prebiotic generates some testiness in scientific/academic circles, and not unreasonably. It seems the nutritionists pre-empted and otherwise snitched the word from the chemists.

First, ‘prebiotic’ had already been defined in the chemistry literature as building block structures that pre-date living organisms. Thus, there is extensive ‘origin of life’ literature on prebiotic chemicals unrelated to prebiotic food ingredients. – National Library of Medicine

But wait: There’s more.

Secondly, while consumers and health practitioners have a general understanding of probiotics, surveys have shown they are less knowledgeable about prebiotics and may even confuse the two terms.

Well, exactly.

The article identifies these problems en route to the conclusion that clear and useful definitions matter to everyone (researchers, regulators, healthcare practitioners, producers, consumers, nitpickers in general) but, sadly for us, has neither an alternative plain-language definition to propose, nor a process-by-which-to-get-there to suggest. It was ever thus.

In the absence of adult supervision, either in the industry or closer to home, I have a modest suggestion to clarify and simplify our lives and, not incidentally, to restore the chemists’ definitional primacy. I mean, fair is fair, am I right? (I am.) I figure if we’re confused, let’s embrace it. I mean, do I care if my gut biome is improved by adding microorganisms or food-for-microorganisms to it? (I do not.)

Herewith, then, a revised definition, with a hat tip to the Mayo Clinic’s approach, cited but not linked in the above-referenced article.

Probiotics: live microorganisms that are intended to have health benefits when consumed or applied to the body, and the nonliving substances that said microorganisms consume for their own, and potentially our, health benefits

You read it here first. Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, and Peacekeeping to follow, I’m sure.

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14 Responses to Pre, fi, pro, fum

  1. Tom Watson says:

    I didn’t know the word prebiotic either. Before biotic? Hmmm……

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – 🙂 And that is one of its meanings but not, I expect, what’s intended on my box of herbal tea.

  2. Judith Umbach says:

    My mind has tuned out almost all “health” ads, articles and claims. Probiotics gave me a worse stomach ache than not. Digestive enzymes were good for a while and then not. A friend’s supertonic made me ill for a week until I decided to stop trying. I think of my mother and her mother who were not part of all this haze of “news” and who both lived until 86. Probably I will, too. A few vitamins will see me through. I trust.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – For sure. I bought the tea as an uncaffeinated evening drink and it works for that, pre/probiotic nature being sort of beside the point. We have such an abundance of food, and healthy food, that supplementation feels rather like gilding the lily.

      • barbara carlson says:

        Doctor certainly are taught that: I don’t know what training they get in them now, but years ago they got an 8-hour course on “Nutrition and Other Quackery”.

        After my 25 years on Microhydrin (antioxidant) and 20 years of 2X a month chiropractic, my doc says he has 100 patients over 70 and not one of them can move like me. So something has worked.
        I am now 80.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – I figure, whatever works for you. I have some things I take that aren’t right out there, but that aren’t typical uses either. If I were trying to replicate my results in a clinical study I’d set a higher evidentiary standard. As it is, if it seems to work, I’m good.

  3. Neil says:

    Pre, Pro – how much difference can one letter make? In the real world (witness the cited scientific studies) quite a bit – but in advertising, willful confusion-planting can go a long way.
    Lets face it, some people would freak out at the thought of eating/drinking something to nourish the freeloading microorganisms inside themselves – but if they think it is something that is “intended to have health benefits” for them, well that’s different.

  4. Eric J Hrycyk says:

    It just a money make scheme….

    1.You take the Pre-biotic to prepare the gut
    2.You take the Pro-biotic to do something to make you feel better
    3.You take the Anti-biotic to cancel the effects of the pro-biotic

    4. And just like shampoo – repeat !

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Eric – Hahaha. I wonder when they’ll get around to putting it all in one pill.

      • barbara carlson says:

        I also eat Spirulina (green food) — my brother-in-law lived for 6 months on nothing but, put in a smoothie of orange juice for Vit. C. So, in a way that takes care of 2/3 of Eric’s $-making idea.

  5. Ken from Kenora says:

    Makes one want to pine for the old label free days. Like home made grain or corn alcohol in a mason jar. You did not have to ask what it was in rural Manitoba.

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