a1 Unit of Pharmacokinetics, Metabolism, Nutrition and Toxicology, PMNT-7369 School of Pharmacy, Université Catholique de Louvain, Avenue Mounier, 73 B-1200, Brussels, Belgium
Oligosaccharides, consisting of a mixture of hexose oligomers with a variable extent of polymerisation, are food products with interesting nutritional properties. They may be naturally present in food, mostly in fruits, vegetables or grains, or produced by biosynthesis from natural sugars or polysaccharides and added to food products because of their nutritional properties or organoleptic characteristics. The dietary intake of oligosaccharides is difficult to estimate, but it may reach 3–13 g/d per person (for fructo-oligosaccharides), depending on the population. The extent of resistance to enzymic reactions occurring in the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract allows oligosaccharides to become ‘colonic nutrients’, as some intestinal bacterial species express specific hydrolases and are able to convert oligosaccharides into short-chain fatty acids (acetate, lactate, propionate, butyrate) and/or gases by fermentation. Oligosaccharides that selectively promote some interesting bacterial species (e.g. lactobacilli, bifidobacteria), and thus equilibrate intestinal microflora, are now termed prebiotics. The pattern of short-chain fatty acid production in the caeco-colon, as well as the prebiotic effect, if demonstrated, are dynamic processes that vary with the type of oligosaccharide (e.g. extent of polymerisation, nature of hexose moieties), the duration of the treatment, the initial composition of flora or the diet in which they are incorporated. Experimental data obtained in vitro and in vivo in animals, and also recent data obtained in human subjects, support the involvement of dietary oligosaccharides in physiological processes in the different intestinal cell types (e.g. mucins production, cell division, immune cells function, ionic transport) and also outside the gastrointestinal tract (e.g. hormone production, lipid and carbohydrates metabolism). The present paper gives an overview of the future development of oligosaccharides, newly recognised as dietary fibre.