The noninvasive assessment of intestinal permeability in humans has a 20-year history. Because the tests are increasingly used in clinical practice and research and because there is much controversy, we reviewed the literature and outlined the potential and possible shortcomings of these procedures. Data was obtained from personal files and from a systemic search through MEDLINE and EMBASE. The principle of the differential urinary excretion of orally administered test markers is explained with reference to the desired physicochemical properties of the markers and how the principle can be exploited to allow assessment of various other gastrointestinal functions. The use of intestinal permeability tests for diagnostic screen for small bowel disease and assessment of responses to treatment, the pathogenesis of disease, normal intestinal physiology, and the effect of drugs and toxins on the intestine is described and reviewed. The controversy surrounding the anatomic location of the permeation pathways that the markers use is highlighted. Noninvasive tests of intestinal permeability have fulfilled early promises of usefulness in clinical practice and research. There is now a need for integrated research into the basic mechanisms of regulatory control of the intestinal barrier function.