Most studies involving prebiotic oligosaccharides have been carried out using inulin and its fructo-oligosaccharide (FOS) derivatives, together with various forms of galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS). Although many intestinal bacteria are able to grow on these carbohydrates, most investigations have demonstrated that the growth of bifidobacteria, and to a lesser degree lactobacilli, is particularly favoured. Because of their safety, stability, organoleptic properties, resistance to digestion in the upper bowel and fermentability in the colon, as well as their abilities to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, these prebiotics are being increasingly incorporated into the Western diet. Inulin-derived oligosaccharides and GOS are mildly laxative, but can result in flatulence and osmotic diarrhoea if taken in large amounts. However, their effects on large bowel habit are relatively minor. Although the literature dealing with the health significance of prebiotics is not as extensive as that concerning probiotics, considerable evidence has accrued showing that consumption of GOS and FOS can have significant health benefits, particularly in relation to their putative anti-cancer properties, influence on mineral absorption, lipid metabolism, and anti-inflammatory and other immune effects such as atopic disease. In many instances, prebiotics seem to be more effective when used as part of a synbiotic combination.