This article reviews the current knowledge of the health effects of dietary fiber and prebiotics and establishes the position of prebiotics within the broader context of dietary fiber. Although the positive health effects of specific fibers on defecation, reduction of postprandial glycemic response, and maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels are generally accepted, other presumed health benefits of dietary fibers are still debated. There is evidence that specific dietary fibers improve the integrity of the epithelial layer of the intestines, increase the resistance against pathogenic colonization, reduce the risk of developing colorectal cancer, increase mineral absorption, and have a positive impact on the immune system, but these effects are neither generally acknowledged nor completely understood. Many of the latter effects are thought to be particularly elicited by prebiotics. Although the prebiotic concept evolved significantly during the past two decades, the line between prebiotics and nonprebiotic dietary fiber remains vague. Nevertheless, scientific evidence demonstrating the health-promoting potential of prebiotics continues to accumulate and suggests that prebiotic fibers have their rightful place in a healthy diet.
Keywords: colonic microbiota; dietary fiber; fermentation; health; short-chain fatty acids.