Inulin: a prebiotic functional food ingredient
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The human gut microbiota is increasingly recognized as playing a central role in human health and disease. This dichotomous relationship with the host forms a central theme in this review, which addresses how we may divert the gut microbiota away from some of its more harmful activities towards beneficial interactions with the human host. We describe the concept of prebiotics, which use specific dietary carbohydrates to increase the numbers of what are seen as beneficial bacteria within the colon, in a selective manner. Specifically, the use of β(2-1) fructans or inulin in general, and certain of its fractions in particular as prebiotics, will be described. Prebiotic fructans constitute efficacious functional foods and there is strong evidence supporting the selectivity of their fermentation within the human gut microbiota, resulting in an increase in the relative numbers of Bifidobacterium spp. There is also considerable evidence, mainly from animal studies but also in humans, that dietary supplementation with prebiotic fructans, through modulation of the microbiota, plays a protective role in colon cancer, heart disease and bone health. However, the mechanisms by which this prebiotic microbiota modulation mediates such diverse health outcomes remain unclear. The future challenge facing the field of prebiotic functional foods will be the elucidation of these mechanisms of action. Recent high resolution bioomics technologies, especially metabonomics, provide the tools necessary to define the metabolic consequences of prebiotic microbiota modulation.