Prebiotics, immune function, infection and inflammation: a review of the evidence

Br J Nutr. 2009 Mar;101(5):633-58. doi: 10.1017/S0007114508055608. Epub 2008 Sep 25.


Beta2-1 fructans are carbohydrate molecules with prebiotic properties. Through resistance to digestion in the upper gastrointestinal tract, they reach the colon intact, where they selectively stimulate the growth and/or activity of beneficial members of the gut microbiota. Through this modification of the intestinal microbiota, and by additional mechanisms, beta2-1 fructans may have beneficial effects upon immune function, ability to combat infection, and inflammatory processes and conditions. In this paper, we have collated, summarised and evaluated studies investigating these areas. Twenty-one studies in laboratory animals suggest that some aspects of innate and adaptive immunity of the gut and the systemic immune systems are modified by beta2-1 fructans. In man, two studies in children and nine studies in adults indicate that the adaptive immune system may be modified by beta2-1 fructans. Thirteen studies in animal models of intestinal infections conclude a beneficial effect of beta2-1 fructans. Ten trials involving infants and children have mostly reported benefits on infectious outcomes; in fifteen adult trials, little effect was generally seen, although in specific situations, certain beta2-1 fructans may be beneficial. Ten studies in animal models show benefit of beta2-1 fructans with regard to intestinal inflammation. Human studies report some benefits regarding inflammatory bowel disease (four positive studies) and atopic dermatitis (one positive study), but findings in irritable bowel syndrome are inconsistent. Therefore, overall the results indicate that beta2-1 fructans are able to modulate some aspects of immune function, to improve the host's ability to respond successfully to certain intestinal infections, and to modify some inflammatory conditions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Animals
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Female
  • Fructans / immunology
  • Fructans / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Immune System / drug effects*
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Inflammation / immunology
  • Inflammation / therapy*
  • Intestines / immunology
  • Intestines / microbiology
  • Lymphoid Tissue / immunology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Opportunistic Infections / immunology
  • Opportunistic Infections / prevention & control*
  • Prebiotics*
  • Young Adult


  • Fructans
  • Prebiotics