Structure and function of non-digestible carbohydrates in the gut microbiome

Together with proteins and fats, carbohydrates are one of the macronutrients in the human diet. Digestible carbohydrates, such as starch, starch-based products, sucrose, lactose, glucose and some sugar alcohols and unusual (and fairly rare) α-linked glucans, directly provide us with energy while other carbohydrates including high molecular weight polysaccharides, mainly from plant cell walls, provide us with dietary fibre. Carbohydrates which are efficiently digested in the small intestine are not available in appreciable quantities to act as substrates for gut bacteria. Some oligo- and polysaccharides, many of which are also dietary fibres, are resistant to digestion in the small intestines and enter the colon where they provide substrates for the complex bacterial ecosystem that resides there. This review will focus on these non-digestible carbohydrates (NDC) and examine their impact on the gut microbiota and their physiological impact. Of particular focus will be the potential of non-digestible carbohydrates to act as prebiotics, but the review will also evaluate direct effects of NDC on human cells and systems

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This work was commissioned by the Prebiotics Task Force.