The human colonic flora has both beneficial and pathogenic potentials with respect to host health. There is now much interest in manipulation of the microbiota composition in order to improve the potentially beneficial aspects. The prebiotic approach dictates that non-viable food components are specifically fermented in the colon by indigenous bacteria thought to be of positive value, e.g. bifidobacteria, lactobacilli. Any food ingredient that enters the large intestine is a candidate prebiotic. However, to be effective, selectivity of the fermentation is essential. Most current attention and success has been derived using non-digestible oligosaccharides. Types primarily being looked at include those which contain fructose, xylose, soya, galactose, glucose and mannose. In particular, fructose-containing oligosaccharides, which occur naturally in a variety of plants such as onion, asparagus, chicory, banana and artichoke, fulfil the prebiotic criteria. Various data have shown that fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) are specifically fermented by bifidobacteria. During controlled feeding studies, ingestion of these prebiotics causes bifidobacteria to become numerically dominant in faeces. Recent studies have indicated that a FOS dose of 4 g/d is prebiotic. To exploit this concept more fully, there is a need for assessments of (a) improved determination of the gut microbiota composition and activity; (b) the use of molecular methodologies to assess accurately prebiotic identities and develop efficient bacterial probing strategies; (c) the prebiotic potential of raw and processed foods; and (d) the health consequences of dietary modulation.