Epidemiological studies have shown an inverse relationship between risk of CVD and intake of whole grain (WG)-rich food. Regular consumption of breakfast cereals can provide not only an increase in dietary WG but also improvements to cardiovascular health. Various mechanisms have been proposed, including prebiotic modulation of the colonic microbiota. In the present study, the prebiotic activity of a maize-derived WG cereal (WGM) was evaluated in a double-blind, placebo-controlled human feeding study (n 32). For a period of 21 d, healthy men and women, mean age 32 (sd 8) years and BMI 23·3 (sd 0·58) kg/m2, consumed either 48 g/d WG cereal (WGM) or 48 g placebo cereal (non-whole grain (NWG)) in a crossover fashion. Faecal samples were collected at five points during the study on days 0, 21, 42, 63 and 84 (representing at baseline, after both treatments and both wash-out periods). Faecal bacteriology was assessed using fluorescence in situ hybridisation with 16S rRNA oligonucleotide probes specific for Bacteroides spp., Bifidobacterium spp., Clostridium histolyticum/perfringens subgroup, Lactobacillus–Enterococcus subgroup and total bacteria. After 21 d consumption of WGM, mean group levels of faecal bifidobacteria increased significantly compared with the control cereal (P = 0·001). After a 3-week wash-out period, bifidobacterial levels returned to pre-intervention levels. No statistically significant changes were observed in serum lipids, glucose or measures of faecal output. In conclusion, this WG maize-enriched breakfast cereal mediated a bifidogenic modulation of the gut microbiota, indicating a possible prebiotic mode of action.