Bifidobacteria, naturally present in the dominant colonic microbiota, represent up to 25% of the cultivable faecal bacteria in adults and 80% in infants. As probiotic agents, bifidobacteria have been studied for their efficacy in the prevention and treatment of a broad spectrum of animal and/or human gastrointestinal disorders, such as colonic transit disorders, intestinal infections, and colonic adenomas and cancer. The aim of this review is to focus on the gastrointestinal effects of bifidobacteria as probiotic agents in animal models and man. The traditional use of bifidobacteria in fermented dairy products and the GRAS ('Generally Recognised As Safe') status of certain strains attest to their safety. Some strains, especially Bifidobacterium animalis strain DN-173 010 which has long been used in fermented dairy products, show high gastrointestinal survival capacity and exhibit probiotic properties in the colon. Bifidobacteria are able to prevent or alleviate infectious diarrhoea through their effects on the immune system and resistance to colonization by pathogens. There is some experimental evidence that certain bifidobacteria may actually protect the host from carcinogenic activity of intestinal flora. Bifidobacteria may exert protective intestinal actions through various mechanisms, and represent promising advances in the fields of prophylaxis and therapy.