In examining the functional aspects of human milk oligosaccharides (HMO), it is not known whether they are digested during the passage through the infant's gastrointestinal tract. HMO were prepared from individual milk samples (n = 6) and separated into neutral and acidic compounds by chromatography. These oligosaccharide fractions were studied for their digestibility by human salivary amylase, porcine pancreatic amylase and brush border membrane vesicles (BBMV) isolated from porcine small intestine; we also examined the effect of low pH on these structures. The characterization of HMO and their digestion products was performed by high-pH anion-exchange chromatography with pulsed amperometric detection (HPAEC-PAD) as well as TLC. It was shown that neither salivary amylase nor pancreatic amylase cleaved HMO. Only after a 2-h incubation with BBMV were slight modifications of the HMO observed. HPAEC-PAD analysis revealed two new components within the neutral oligosaccharide fractions; these were characterized by mass spectrometric analysis as lacto-N:-triose and galactose. Only lacto-N:-triose was present within digestion assays of oligosaccharides, which did not contain fucosyl or N:-acetylneuraminic acid residues. These results suggest that <5% of the HMO are digested in the intestinal tract. Hence, HMO may play a role as prebiotics or as factors influencing the local immune system of the intestine in breast-fed infants.