Prebiotics are non-digestible (by the host) food ingredients that have a beneficial effect through their selective metabolism in the intestinal tract. Key to this is the specificity of microbial changes. The present paper reviews the concept in terms of three criteria: (a) resistance to gastric acidity, hydrolysis by mammalian enzymes and gastrointestinal absorption; (b) fermentation by intestinal microflora; (c) selective stimulation of the growth and/or activity of intestinal bacteria associated with health and wellbeing. The conclusion is that prebiotics that currently fulfil these three criteria are fructo-oligosaccharides, galacto-oligosaccharides and lactulose, although promise does exist with several other dietary carbohydrates. Given the range of food vehicles that may be fortified by prebiotics, their ability to confer positive microflora changes and the health aspects that may accrue, it is important that robust technologies to assay functionality are used. This would include a molecular-based approach to determine flora changes. The future use of prebiotics may allow species-level changes in the microbiota, an extrapolation into genera other than the bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, and allow preferential use in disease-prone areas of the body.