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Gastrointestinal physiology and functions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 March 2007

Barbara O. Schneeman
Department of Nutrition, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA
E-mail address:


While the health benefit of a functional food may be a metabolic response that lowers risk for disease, the actual target for the food or food component may be on the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract (GIT). For example, slowing absorption from the intestine, as measured by examining the appearance of the nutrient or food component in the blood, the hormone response associated with absorption of the compound or excretion of the compound, may provide a health benefit. However, the food component may slow absorption by delaying gastric emptying, altering the mixing within the intestinal contents or decreasing the availability of digestive enzymes in the intestine. These measures of GIT function provide validation of the mechanisms by which the functional food or food components affect metabolism. Bioavailability of physiologically active compounds from foods will be determined by the digestibility of foods that contain these compounds, their subsequent absorption and utilization by tissues. The physical structure of foods contributes to the functional effects of foods as well as to the availability of compounds from foods. For example, recent studies have demonstrated that changing the viscosity of the gut contents alters absorption and GIT response. Additionally, food structures such as the plant cell wall change the availability of absorbable compounds along the gastrointestinal contents. The areas of probiotics and prebiotics have highlighted the potential importance of gut microflora in health. While evidence suggests biological activity relevant to disease risk reduction, the long-term implications of the microbial activity have yet to be established.

Research Article
Copyright © The Nutrition Society 2002


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