Once upon a time, the cola wars were just Coke versus Pepsi. These days, though, store coolers are crammed with cans all claiming to be a healthy answer to your soda craving.
Some of the newer offerings are prebiotic sodas, so-called “functional” beverages that combine carbonation with plant-based carbohydrates that have been linked to gut health and increased immunity, among other benefits.
A report published in July 2021 in Food & Beverage Insider stated that “widespread growth is anticipated” in the prebiotic beverage market, and the variety of fun, colorfully packaged brands like Poppi, Olipop, and Health-Ade seem to prove the prediction right. But are these sodas actually better for you? Nutrition experts discuss what the research shows, and what you need to know before you buy.
What Exactly Are Prebiotic Sodas?
“As public attention to the importance of a healthy gut continues to grow, companies have also begun to fortify prebiotics into various beverages, breakfast cereals, or snack foods,” says Whitney Linsenmeyer, PhD, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and an assistant professor of nutrition at Saint Louis University.
Previously, the idea of adding carbs to your can of cola was unheard-of in the health world, but more and more research, such as a study published in Current Developments in Nutrition in March 2018, is finding that the kind of carbs known specifically as prebiotics, a type of fiber, may play an integral role in gut health.
Because fiber is technically the indigestible part of plants, it isn’t broken down by our bodies in the usual way by digestive enzymes. Instead, it falls to the bacteria in our guts, known as probiotics, to dismantle fiber into molecules known as short-chain fatty acids. A study published in March 2020 in the journal Nutrients suggested that if you feed probiotic bacteria, they’ll thrive, and thus improve your metabolic function, lower your cholesterol levels, and maintain blood glucose control.
Most people get prebiotics in the foods they eat each day, specifically from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and seeds. To capitalize on this new awareness of prebiotics, beverage makers are extracting fibers (inulin is a popular one) from food sources and adding them to packaged drinks like soda. It’s likely to be a lucrative enterprise, as one industry report estimates the prebiotics market will nearly double, from $4.95 billion in 2020 to $9.5 billion in 2027. But can prebiotic sodas actually do anything for our health?
What Are the Nutrition Facts of Prebiotic Sodas?
While the nutrition facts of prebiotic drinks vary from brand to brand, most are significantly lower in calories and sugar than traditional soda, though they also tend to contain sugar substitutes like stevia. A 12-ounce (oz) can of orange Poppi, for instance, contains 20 calories and 5 grams (g) of sugars, 4 g of which are added sugars. A 12 oz can of orange cream Olipop contains 50 calories, 5 g of sugar (all added), and 9 g of fiber.
“I caution those consuming purportedly ‘healthy’ beverages to be wary of the fact that some products contain large amounts of added sugar, which we do know to be detrimental to gut health and brain health,” says says Uma Naidoo, MD, the director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the author of This Is Your Brain on Food. A study published in 2017 in Advances in Nutrition found that a high-sugar diet contributes to cognitive decline and dementia in adults.
Dr. Linsenmeyer says 2 to 5 g of added sugar per 12 oz can is “a perfectly fine range, especially when compared to a regular soda.” She noted that some brands may sweeten their beverages with juice, which may not be listed on the nutrition label as added sugar though it is. Even with fruit juice these beverages are largely just sugar and calories, so consume them in moderation.
What to Know About Prebiotic Sodas and Health
Of course, the main draw of prebiotic sodas is the idea that they promote gut health. So, do they?
Again, it depends on the brand. On average, daily intake of around 3 to 10 g of prebiotics brings health benefits, according to a study published in 2019 in the journal Foods. “Some of the prebiotic sodas on the market contain up to 8 to 10 g of prebiotics, so the dosage is appropriate to support claimed benefits,” says Laura Cochrun, MPH, RDN, who is based in Washington, DC. “Other prebiotic sodas on the market contain fewer prebiotics. Check the label!”
Poppi’s makers, for instance, claim the beverage gets its prebiotic powers (responsible, the company claims, for glowing skin, weight loss, and lower cholesterol, among other perks) from apple cider vinegar, and the fibers found in the “mother,” a combination of yeast and healthy bacteria that is the by-product of fermenting apple juice. There is, however, no measurable fiber in a can of Poppi. Even the prebiotics in straight apple cider vinegar (ACV) will be minimal compared with what you can get from whole foods, says Linsenmeyer. A tablespoon of ACV has no fiber, according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), while a medium apple has nearly 5 g.
Other brands, such as Olipop, which has 9 g of fiber in each can, get their benefits from fiber-rich chicory root, sunchokes, and other nonsoluble fiber sources. While preliminary research published in 2017 in the journal Nutrients indicates that those fibers could be good sources of prebiotics, more research in actual humans is needed to determine what, if any, specific health benefits they may confer.
One thing to note: Although prebiotics and probiotics are both important for overall health, you don’t need to consume them at the same time to reap their benefits. “Both are beneficial to the gut microbiota in different ways,” Linsenmeyer says. “The prebiotics are a food source for [existing] gut microbiota, whereas the probiotics are an additional dose of healthy bacteria.”
The Pros and Cons of Prebiotic Sodas
While the health benefits of prebiotic sodas and other beverages are unclear and unregulated by the FDA, their other ingredients are subject to slightly more stringent regulations, making them a lower-risk option than say, prebiotic supplements, for anyone who wants to try them, says Cochrun.
Prebiotics, even in drinks, are generally well tolerated and cause very few adverse side effects in most people, though Cochrun notes that some groups, like people with irritable bowel syndrome or FODMAP intolerance, may want to consult with their healthcare provider before adding prebiotics to their diet. Mild gastrointestinal discomfort, such as gas and bloating, are possible.
Also, these beverages can be expensive — $3 per can or more in some cases. And what you’re paying for isn’t likely to be any kind of health perk, experts say.
“Prebiotic beverages will never replace a balanced diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains,” Linsenmeyer says, “but can be a fine addition to your overall beverage intake when you’re looking for something other than water, especially if you’re using them to kick a soda habit,” she says. She recommends looking for a brand with no more than 5 g of sugar per 12 oz can, and some added fiber.
But don’t rely on prebiotic beverages to support your gut health. “They are not a replacement for prebiotic-rich whole foods,” she says. Your best option is to try to incorporate more of those foods — garlic, onions, bananas, asparagus, oats, and apples, to name a few — into your diet as often as possible.