Dietary fiber, inulin, and oligofructose: a review comparing their physiological effects

Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 1993;33(2):103-48. doi: 10.1080/10408399309527616.


Dietary fiber is a general term. It covers a wide variety of substances that belong to the family of carbohydrates that resist hydrolysis by human alimentary enzymes but are fermented by colonic microflora. The main physiological effects of dietary fiber are primarily on gastric emptying and small intestinal transit time, resulting in an improved glucose tolerance and a decreased digestion of starch: second, on colonic transit time and large bowel functions due to fermentation by ceco-colonic microbial flora or bulking action. The so-called soluble dietary fibers are fermented to a large extent by a wide variety of anaerobic bacteria that result in an increase in bacterial biomass, an increase in fecal mass, a change in intracolonic pH, and production of short chain fatty acids and various gases as metabolic end products. The insoluble fibers are only marginally fermented: they serve almost exclusively as bulking agents that result in shorter transit time and increased fecal mass. The short chain fatty acids resulting from the colonic fermentation of dietary fiber are largely absorbed via the portal blood and reach both the liver and the peripheral tissues. They induce changes in glucose and fat metabolism leading to post-prandial hypoglycemia and long-term hypolipidemia. Inulin and oligofructose are fructans with a degree of polymerization of 2 to 60 and 2 to 20, respectively. Due to the structural conformation of their osidic bridge (beta 2-1), they both resist the hydrolysis by human alimentary enzymes. Moreover, when reaching the colon, both inulin and oligofructose are almost quantitatively fermented almost exclusively by colonic bifidobacteria and bacteroides. Such an extensive fermentation causes an increase in fecal bacterial biomass, a decrease in ceco-colonic pH, and produces a large amount of fermentation products among which the short chain fatty acids that exert systemic effects on lipid metabolism. Thus, both inulin and oligofructose have most of the characteristics of a dietary fiber and the proposal is made to classify them as such. Moreover, they are bifidogenic factors, because, due to still unknown reasons, they are primarily fermented by bifidobacteria. It is concluded from this review that "nondigestible fructo-oligosaccharides," even though they are not included in the carbohydrate fraction that is quantified as dietary fiber by classic analytical methods, have most of the physiological effects of a dietary fiber.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dietary Fiber
  • Digestive System / drug effects
  • Digestive System Physiological Phenomena
  • Fermentation
  • Fructose / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Inulin / pharmacology*
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control


  • Dietary Fiber
  • Fructose
  • Inulin