Published online by Cambridge University Press: 09 March 2007
The gut is an obvious target for the development of functional foods, acting as it does as the interface between diet and the metabolic events which sustain life. The key processes in digestive physiology which can be regulated by modifying diet are satiety, the rate and extent of macronutrient breakdown and absorption from the small bowel, sterol metabolism, the colonic microflora, fermentation, mucosal function and bowel habit, and the gut immune system. The intestinal microflora is the main focus of many current functional foods. Probiotics are foods which contain live bacteria which are beneficial to health whilst prebiotics, such as certain non-digestible oligosaccharides which selectively stimulate the growth of bifidobacteria in the colon, are already on the market. Their claimed benefits are to alleviate lactose maldigestion, increase resistance to invasion by pathogenic species of bacteria in the gut, stimulate the immune system and possibly protect against cancer. There are very few reports of well-designed human intervention studies with prebiotics as yet. Certain probiotic species have been shown to shorten the duration of rotavirus diarrhoea in children but much more work is needed on the mechanism of immunomodulation and of competitive exclusion and microflora modification. The develop-ment of functional foods for the gut is in its infancy and will be successful only if more fundamental research is done on digestive physiology, the gut microflora, immune system and mucosal function.