The essential role of the gut microbiota for health has generated tremendous interest in modulating its composition and metabolic function. One of these strategies is prebiotics, which typically refer to selectively fermented nondigestible food ingredients or substances that specifically support the growth and/or activity of health-promoting bacteria that colonize the gastrointestinal tract. In this Perspective, we argue that advances in our understanding of diet-microbiome-host interactions challenge important aspects of the current concept of prebiotics, and especially the requirement for effects to be 'selective' or 'specific'. We propose to revise this concept in an effort to shift the focus towards ecological and functional features of the microbiota more likely to be relevant for host physiology. This revision would provide a more rational basis for the identification of prebiotic compounds, and a framework by which the therapeutic potential of modulating the gut microbiota could be more fully materialized.