Gastrointestinal effects of low-digestible carbohydrates

Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2009 Apr;49(4):327-60. doi: 10.1080/10408390802067126.


Low-digestible carbohydrates (LDCs) are carbohydrates that are incompletely or not absorbed in the small intestine but are at least partly fermented by bacteria in the large intestine. Fiber, resistant starch, and sugar alcohols are types of LDCs. Given potential health benefits (including a reduced caloric content, reduced or no effect on blood glucose levels, non-cariogenic effect) the prevalence of LDCs in processed foods is increasing. Many of the benefits of LDCs are related to the inability of human digestive enzymes to break down completely the carbohydrates into absorbable saccharides and the subsequent fermentation of unabsorbed carbohydrates in the colon. As a result, LDCs may affect laxation and cause gastrointestinal effects, including abdominal discomfort, flatus, and diarrhea, especially at higher or excessive intakes. Such responses, though transient, affect the perception of the well-being of consumers and their acceptance of food products containing LDCs. Current recommendations for fiber intake do not consider total LDC consumption nor recommend an upper limit for LDC intake based on potential gastrointestinal effects. Therefore, a review of published studies reporting gastrointestinal effects of LDCs was conducted. We included only studies published in refereed journals in English. Additionally, we excluded studies of subjects with incomplete or abnormal functioning gastrointestinal tracts or where antibiotics, stimulant laxatives, or other drugs affecting motility were included. Only in studies with a control period, either placebo treatment or no LDC treatment, were included. Studies must have included an acceptable measure of gastrointestinal effect. Sixty-eight studies and six review articles were evaluated. This review describes definitions, classifications, and mechanisms of LDCs, evaluates published human feeding studies of fifteen LDCs for associations between gastrointestinal effects and levels of LDC intake, and presents recommendations for LDC consumption and further research.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Pain / etiology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Diarrhea / etiology
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / classification
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / metabolism*
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / pharmacokinetics*
  • Dietary Fiber / adverse effects
  • Digestion*
  • Flatulence / etiology
  • Galactans / administration & dosage
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Intestinal Absorption
  • Mannans / administration & dosage
  • Plant Gums / administration & dosage
  • Starch / adverse effects
  • Sugar Alcohols / adverse effects


  • Dietary Carbohydrates
  • Dietary Fiber
  • Galactans
  • Mannans
  • Plant Gums
  • Sugar Alcohols
  • Starch
  • guar gum