Inulin-type fructans are not digested and reach the human colon intact, where they are selectively fermented by the colon microbiota, in particular bifidobacteria. As a result, they are converted, directly or indirectly, to short-chain fatty acids and other organic acids, as well as gases, and lead to both bifidogenic and butyrogenic health-promoting effects. Bifidobacteria display phenotypic variation on strain level as to their capacity to degrade inulin-type fructans. Also, different chain lengths of inulin-type fructans may stimulate different subgroups within the bifidobacterial population. The end-metabolites of inulin-type fructan degradation by bifidobacteria reflect their growth rates on these polymers. Other colon bacteria are also able to degrade inulin-type fructans, as is the case for lactobacilli, Bacteroides, certain enterobacteria, and butyrate producers. Bacterial cross-feeding mechanisms in the colon lay at the basis of overall butyrate production, a functional characteristic of several colon bacteria that is always accompanied by gas production. Finally, specificity of polysaccharide use by the colon microbiota may determine diet-induced alterations in the microbiota and consequent metabolic effects.
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