British Journal of Nutrition

Review Article

Prebiotics, immune function, infection and inflammation: a review of the evidence

Amy R. Lomaxa1 c1 and Philip C. Caldera1

a1 Institute of Human Nutrition, School of Medicine, University of Southampton, Tremona Road, Southampton, SO16 6YD, UK


β2-1 Fructans are carbohydrate molecules with prebiotic properties. Through resistance to digestion in the upper gastrointestinal tract, they reach the colon intact, where they selectively stimulate the growth and/or activity of beneficial members of the gut microbiota. Through this modification of the intestinal microbiota, and by additional mechanisms, β2-1 fructans may have beneficial effects upon immune function, ability to combat infection, and inflammatory processes and conditions. In this paper, we have collated, summarised and evaluated studies investigating these areas. Twenty-one studies in laboratory animals suggest that some aspects of innate and adaptive immunity of the gut and the systemic immune systems are modified by β2-1 fructans. In man, two studies in children and nine studies in adults indicate that the adaptive immune system may be modified by β2-1 fructans. Thirteen studies in animal models of intestinal infections conclude a beneficial effect of β2-1 fructans. Ten trials involving infants and children have mostly reported benefits on infectious outcomes; in fifteen adult trials, little effect was generally seen, although in specific situations, certain β2-1 fructans may be beneficial. Ten studies in animal models show benefit of β2-1 fructans with regard to intestinal inflammation. Human studies report some benefits regarding inflammatory bowel disease (four positive studies) and atopic dermatitis (one positive study), but findings in irritable bowel syndrome are inconsistent. Therefore, overall the results indicate that β2-1 fructans are able to modulate some aspects of immune function, to improve the host's ability to respond successfully to certain intestinal infections, and to modify some inflammatory conditions.

(Received February 26 2008)

(Revised May 14 2008)

(Accepted May 27 2008)

(Online publication September 25 2008)


c1 Corresponding author: Miss Amy R. Lomax, fax +44 2380 795255, email


Abbreviations: FOS, fructo-oligosaccharides; GALT, gut-associated lymphoid tissue; GOS, galacto-oligosaccharides; IFN, interferon; IN, inulin; MHC, major histocompatability complex; MLN, mesenteric lymph nodes; MOS, mannanoligosaccharides; NK, natural killer; OF, oligofructose; PP, Peyer's patches