Are Prebiotic Sodas Actually a Gut-Friendly Choice?

Dietitians and a gastroenterologist sound off.

hand holding a can and an illustration of a gut
Photo: Getty Images

If you've been hanging out with us here at EatingWell for a bit—or seen any commercials for yogurt or kombucha in the last decade—you probably feel like a pro in all things probiotics.

As a quick refresher, "Probiotics are 'good' bacteria that promote gut health," explains Lauren Ranley, M.S., RD, LDN, a registered dietitian and the owner of Function Well Nutrition in Norfolk, Massachusetts.

A healthy gut microbiome does much more than impact digestion. Gut health has been linked to everything from lower risk for depression and anxiety to a stronger immune system and potentially easier weight loss (if that's your goal). Probiotics in particular may also aid in preventing and treating diarrhea and easing skin issues.

But how about prebiotics? They're becoming so trendy, prebiotics are now being pumped into sparkling functional beverages like Shark Tank-famous Poppi and Olipop—both of which are flying off shelves and adding new flavors all the time.

Stephen Ellsworth, CEO of Poppi, tells Food Navigator that, as part of the "functional beverage" category of drinks with health claims beyond hydration, "We're in the fastest-growing category in the nonalcoholic beverage market."

Referring to their brightly colored, eye-catching, social-media-friendly cans, Allison Ellsworth, Poppi chief brand officer, adds to Food Navigator: "It's almost like a fashion statement. People want to be seen drinking Poppi."

Poppi's marketers claim that their product may improve chronic health issues and tout it as "a detox powerhouse for your gut. It may help your body naturally reset from last night's ... not-so-great decisions."

Are those facts—or is this really just a well-designed, pricy way to get some H2O? We tapped health experts to spill.

What Are Prebiotics, Anyway?

Before we address the drinks themselves, let's talk prebiotics.

"As probiotics work to digest, ferment, and decompose the food you eat, prebiotics fuel these bacteria," Ranley says, explaining that prebiotics essentially act as food for probiotics in our gut. "Prebiotics are nondigestible fibers found in most plant-based foods; think whole grains, fruits and vegetables. The undigested fibers pass through the gastrointestinal tract and promote the growth and activity of the probiotics."

Just like we're alive and kicking—and need food to power us through our days—probiotics need to be fed in order to do their best work.

"The way we support our gut microbiome and empower them to support our overall health is by feeding them prebiotics," says Will Bulsiewicz, M.D., a gastroenterologist in Charleston, South Carolina, the author of The Fiber Fueled Cookbook and the U.S. medical director of Zoe, a personalized nutrition company. "There are three main prebiotics: fiber, resistant starch and polyphenols. Notice a pattern there? If you guessed, 'they come from plants,' you're correct!"

Getting plenty of prebiotics to fuel a healthy gut microbiome is one of the strongest arguments in favor of a plant-focused diet, Bulsiewicz believes. Unfortunately, 95% of Americans are currently not meeting recommendations for fiber intake. "This certainly contributes to the health challenges we face as a nation," he says.

Some of the best sources of prebiotics include:

  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Barley
  • Beans
  • Edamame
  • Garlic
  • Honey
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Milk
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Rye
  • Tomatoes
  • Wheat

"When consumed together, prebiotics and probiotics help promote the growth of healthy bacteria and help balance out our overall gut microbiome," says Roxana Ehsani, M.S., RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Miami and a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

What Are Prebiotic Sodas—and Are They Healthy?

Prebiotic sodas are made with mostly carbonated water, and are lightly sweetened with typically either cane sugar and/or stevia, plus some fruit juices. From there, the brands vary a bit in terms of the prebiotics; Poppi opts for apple-cider vinegar, while Olipop features a mix of cassava root fiber, chicory root inulin, Jerusalem artichoke inulin, nopal cactus extract, calendula flower extract, kudzu root extract, marshmallow root extract and slippery elm bark extract.

Poppi sodas range from 20 to 25 calories and 4 to 5 grams of sugar per 12-ounce can, and Olipop sodas have 35 to 45 calories and 2 to 5 grams of sugar per 12-ounce can.

"These prebiotic sodas do contain prebiotics, so they can help feed your microbiota," Ehsani confirms. "There isn't an official recommendation on how much prebiotics you should get per day. Some studies have suggested that 3 to 5 grams of prebiotics can benefit your gut, and consuming the recommended amount of dietary fiber per day will help you hit this mark." (According to the current U.S. Dietary Guidelines for dietary fiber, that means 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men.)

"Consuming one of these prebiotic sodas can help you earn a few grams toward your daily recommendation, but I would prefer people rely on food-first sources, rather than foods or drinks that have added prebiotics," Ehsani continues.

Currently, there is no scientific consensus for how much, how often or what kind of prebiotics and probiotics should be consumed, Ranley adds. Probiotics' benefits vary depending on the strain, and that topic is still being researched. Plus, even if we did know how much prebiotics we should consume to experience any wellness gains, it's challenging to tell how much prebiotics are even included—and able to be utilized within the body—in these prebiotic sodas.

"Anytime a food becomes increasingly popular, whether motivated by health or some other motivation, we should expect the food industry to jump on this trend," Bulsiewicz says. (We're looking at you, adrenal cocktail.) "That's exactly what we are seeing with the prebiotic soda trend. In essence, they're taking traditional soda beverages and jumping on the gut-health trend by adding prebiotics to them. So yes, prebiotic sodas will impact gut health, but the exact effect—and whether or not it actually leads to noticeable benefits—will depend on the individual product."

All foods impact our gut health one way or another, Bulsiewicz says, and the motivation for consuming prebiotics is that we want to impact the gut in a positive way.

"Still, I would caution EatingWell readers against trying to make their gut healthier through the consumption of ultra-processed foods. If you are replacing a traditional sugar-laden soda with a healthier version that includes prebiotics, I do consider that a step in the right direction," he explains, since it has less additives—including added sugars. "But I'd be much more excited about you sitting down to eat a plant-filled and prebiotic-charged meal with a large, refreshing glass of water."

The Bottom Line

The health pros we spoke to agree: Consuming these products shouldn't cause any harm, and they can be a great alternative to regular soda since they avoid refined sugars and use more natural ingredients, such as carbonated water and fruit juices.

"Be wary about claims of detoxifying your body after a night of drinking, though," Ranley says. (As a reminder, your body does all of the "detoxing" it needs to naturally, and definitely don't think of this as a free pass to drink alcohol beyond moderation.)

As always, we recommend food sources as the first course of action, then supplemental options (under the guidance of a doctor) to help fill in the gaps.

"Prebiotics are incredibly easy to find: they're in plants," Bulsiewicz says. Get your dose through whole-food sources, and you'll also score the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and dietary fiber these plants come packaged with in their natural form, Ehsani adds.

"The average American gets just 10% of their calories from plants, and this is the reason that 95% of us are fiber-deficient. The solution needs to be to increase our intake of real plants, not to try to fix our problems with ultra-processed foods that have a 'plant-based' or 'prebiotic' stamp on them," Bulsiewicz concludes. Our seven-day whole food, plant-based diet shows how delicious and easy this can be.

That doesn't mean that you need to eat all plants, all the time, though. But it's a wise choice for your overall gut health to nosh on more foods without a label (or fancy label claims). To help kick things off, try our 30-day eat more vegetables challenge.

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