Main Body

Macronutrient Digestion

You probably do not think too much about what actually happens to the food you eat. This section will describe in depth how what you eat is digested. The desired end result for the learner will be an integrated understanding of the process. This will require higher levels of thinking, but will prove to be well worth it in the end.


3.1 Digestion at a Glance
3.2 Mouth to the Stomach
3.3 Stomach
3.4 Small Intestine
3.5 Macronutrient Digestion Review
3.6 Large Intestine

No References

3.1 Digestion at a Glance

Digestion is the process of breaking down food to be absorbed or excreted. The gastrointestinal (GI, digestive) tract, the passage through which our food travels, is a “tube within a tube.” The trunk of our body is the outer tube and the GI tract is the interior tube, as shown below. Thus, even though the GI tract is within the body, the actual interior of the tract is technically outside of the body. This is because the contents have to be absorbed into the body. If it’s not absorbed, it will be excreted and never enter the body itself.

Figure 3.11 The digestive tract, also known as the gastrointestinal tract, is a “tube within a tube”

A number of organs are involved in digestion, which collectively are referred to as the digestive system.

Figure 3.12 The digestive system1

The organs that form the gastrointestinal tract (mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine (aka colon), rectum, and anus) come into direct contact with the food or digestive content.

Figure 3.13 The gastrointestinal or digestive tract2

The journey through the gastrointestinal tract starts in the mouth and ends in the anus as shown below:

Mouth –> Esophagus –> Stomach –> Small Intestine –> Large Intestine –> Rectum –> Anus

In addition to the GI tract, there are digestion accessory organs (salivary glands, pancreas, gallbladder, and liver) that play an integral role in digestion. The accessory organs do not come directly in contact with food or digestive content.

Figure 3.14 Digestion accessory organs1

There are a number of enzymes that are involved in digestion. We will go through each one in detail, but this table should help give an overview of which enzymes are active at each location of the GI tract.

Table 3.11 Digestive enzymes

Location Enzyme/Coenzyme
Mouth Salivary amylase

Lingual lipase

Stomach Pepsin

Gastric lipase




Small Intestine

Pancreatic alpha-amylase

Brush border disaccharidases

Pancreatic lipase



Cholesterol esterase


Brush border peptidases

 References & Links



Enzymes and Digestion –

3.2 Mouth to the Stomach

Digestion begins in the mouth, both mechanically and chemically. Mechanical digestion is called mastication, or the chewing and grinding of food into smaller pieces. The salivary glands release saliva, mucus, and the enzymes, salivary amylase and lysozyme.

Figure 3.21 The mouth1

Salivary amylase cleaves the alpha 1-4 glycosidic bonds in the starch molecules, amylose and amylopectin. However, salivary amylase cannot cleave the branch points in amylopectin where there are alpha 1-6 glycosidic bonds, as shown in the figure below. Overall this enzyme accounts for a minor amount of carbohydrate digestion.

Figure 3.22 Enzymatic action of salivary amylase. Purple arrows point to alpha 1-4 glycosidic bonds that can be cleaved. The yellow arrows point to the alpha 1-6 glycosidic bonds that cannot be cleaved

Lysozyme helps break down bacteria cell walls to prevent a possible infection. Another enzyme, lingual lipase, is also released in the mouth. Although it is released in the mouth, it is most active in the stomach where it preferentially cleaves short-chain fatty acids in the sn-3 position. Lingual lipase has a small role in digestion in adults, but may be important for infants to help break down triglycerides in breast milk2.


Now that the food has been thoroughly chewed and formed into a bolus, it can proceed down the throat to the next stop in digestion. It will move down the pharynx where it reaches a “fork in the road”, with the larynx as one road and the esophagus as the other. The esophagus road leads to the stomach; this is the direction that food should go. The other road, through the larynx, leads to the trachea and ultimately the lungs. This is definitely not where you want your food or drink going, as this is the pathway for the air you breathe.

Figure 3.23 Cross section of face. The epiglottis covers larynx to prevent food and drink from entering the lungs3

Fortunately, our body was designed in such a way that a small tissue, called the epiglottis, covers the opening to the trachea. It directs the food down the correct road as shown below.

Figure 3.24 Epiglottis is like a traffic cop guiding food down the correct digestion road.


Before being correctly guided into the esophagus, the bolus of food will travel through the upper esophageal sphincter. Sphincters are circular muscles that are found throughout the gastrointestinal tract that essentially serve as gates between the different sections. Once in the esophagus, wavelike muscular movements, known as peristalsis, occur, as shown in the animation and video in the links below.

Web Links

Peristalsis Animation

Video: Peristalsis (0:57)

At the end of the esophagus the bolus will encounter the lower esophageal sphincter. This sphincter keeps the harmful acids of the stomach out of the esophagus. However, in many people this sphincter is leaky, which allows stomach acid to reflux, or creep up, the esophagus. Stomach acid is very acidic (has a low pH). The ruler below will give you an idea of just how acidic the stomach is. Notice that the pH of gastric (term used to describe the stomach) fluid is lower (more acidic) than any of the listed items besides battery acid.

Figure 3.26 pH of some common items4

The leaking of the very acidic gastric contents results in a burning sensation, commonly referred to as “heartburn.” If this occurs more than twice per week and is severe, the person may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The following videos explain more about these conditions.

Web Links

Video: Acid Reflux (1:28)

Video: GERD 101 (0.55)

Table 3.21 Review of Chemical Digestion in the Mouth

Macronutrient Action
Carbohydrates Salivary amylase cleaves 1,4-glycosidic bonds
Lipids Release of lingual lipase
Protein None

References & Links

  1. Alan Hoofring,
  2. Shils ME, Shike M, Ross AC, Caballero B, Cousins RJ, editors. (2006) Modern nutrition in health and disease. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.


Peristalsis –


Peristalsis Animation –

Acid Reflux –
GERD 101 –

3.3 Stomach

After going through the lower esophageal sphincter, food enters the stomach. Our stomach is involved in both chemical and mechanical digestion. Mechanical digestion occurs as the stomach churns and grinds food into a semisolid substance called chyme (partially digested food).

The lining of the stomach is made up of different layers of tissue. The mucosa is the outermost layer (closest to stomach cavity) as shown in the figure below.

Figure 3.31 The anatomy of the stomach1

The mucosa is not a flat surface. Instead, its surface is lined by gastric pits, as shown in the figure below.

Figure 3.32 Gastric pits2

Gastric pits are indentations in the stomach’s surface that are lined by four different types of cells.

Figure 3.33 Blowup of mucosa to show the structure of gastric pits1

The following video is a nice introduction to gastric pits and talks about chief and parietal cells that are covered in more detail below.

Web Link

Video: Gastric Pits (0:56)

At the bottom of the gastric pit are the G cells that secrete the hormone gastrin. Gastrin stimulates the parietal and chief cells that are found above the G cells. The chief cells secrete the zymogen pepsinogen and the enzyme gastric lipase. A zymogen is an inactive precursor of an enzyme that must be cleaved or altered to form the active enzyme. The parietal cells secrete hydrochloric acid (HCl), which lowers the pH of the gastric juice (water + enzymes + acid). The HCl inactivates salivary amylase and catalyzes the conversion of pepsinogen to pepsin. Finally, the top of the pits are the neck cells that secrete mucus to prevent the gastric juice from digesting or damaging the stomach mucosa3. The table below summarizes the actions of the different cells in the gastric pits.

Table 3.41 Cells involved in the digestive processes in the stomach

Type of Cell Secrete
Neck Mucus
Chief Pepsinogen and gastric lipase
Parietal HCl
G Gastrin

The figure below shows the action of all these different secretions in the stomach.

Figure 3.34 The action of gastric secretions in the stomach

To reiterate, the figure above illustrates that the neck cells of the gastric pits secrete mucus to protect the mucosa of the stomach from essentially digesting itself. Gastrin from the G cells stimulates the parietal and chief cells to secrete HCl and enzymes, respectively.

The HCl in the stomach denatures salivary amylase and other proteins by breaking down the structure and, thus, the function of it. HCl also converts pepsinogen to the active enzyme pepsin. Pepsin is a protease, meaning that it cleaves bonds in proteins. It breaks down the proteins in food into individual peptides (shorter segments of amino acids). The other enzyme that is active in the stomach is gastric lipase. This enzyme preferentially cleaves the sn-3 position of triglycerides to produce 1,2-diglyceride and a free fatty acid, as shown below4. It is responsible for up to 20% of triglyceride digestion3.

Figure 3.35 Gastric Lipase action results in production of 1,2-diglyceride and a free fatty acid

The chyme will then leave the stomach and enter the small intestine via the pyloric sphincter (shown below).

Figure 3.36 Cross section of the stomach showing the pyloric sphincter5

Table 3.32 Summary of chemical digestion in the stomach

Chemical or Enzyme Action
Gastrin Stimulates chief cells to release pepsinogen

Stimulates parietal cells to release HCl

HCl Denatures salivary amylase

Denatures proteins

Activates pepsinogen to pepsin

Pepsin Cleaves proteins to peptides
Gastric lipase Cleaves sn-3 FA of triglycerides

References & Links

  3. Gropper SS, Smith JL, Groff JL. (2008) Advanced nutrition and human metabolism. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.
  4. Stipanuk MH. (2006) Biochemical, physiological, & molecular aspects of human nutrition. St. Louis, MO: Saunders Elsevier.


Gastric Pits –

3.4 Small Intestine

The small intestine is the primary site of digestion. It is divided into three sections: the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum (shown below). After leaving the stomach, the first part of the small intestine that chyme will encounter is the duodenum.

Figure 3.41 Three sections of the small intestine1

The small intestine consists of many layers, which can be seen in the cross section below.

Figure 3.42 Cross section of the small intestine2

Examining these layers closer, we are going to focus on the epithelium, which comes into contact with the chyme and is responsible for absorption. The lumen is the name of the cavity that is considered “outside the body” that chyme moves through.

Figure 3.43 Cross section of small intestine with the structures labeled2

The organization of the small intestine is in such a way that it contains circular folds and finger-like projections known as villi. The folds and villi are shown in the next few figures.

Figure 3.44 Folds in the small intestine2
Figure 3.45 Villi in the small intestine3
Figure 3.46 Villi line the surface of the small intestine2,4

If we were to zoom in even closer, we would be able to see that enterocytes (small intestine absorptive cells) line villi as shown below.

Figure 3.47 Enterocytes line villi4

The side, or membrane, of the enterocyte that faces the lumen is not smooth either. It is lined with microvilli, and is known as the brush border (aka apical) membrane, as shown below.

Figure 3.48 Enterocyte, or small intestinal absorptive cell is lined with microvilli. This lined surface is referred to as the brush border membrane.

Together these features (folds + villi + microvilli) increase the surface area ~600 times versus if it was a smooth tube5. More surface area leads to more contact with the enterocytes and thus, increased absorption.

Going even closer, we discover that the surface of the microvilli is covered by the hair-like glycocalyx, which is glycoproteins and carbohydrates as shown below.

Figure 3.49 Glycocalyx lines the microvilli

Now that you have learned about the anatomy of the small intestine, the following subsections go through the different digestive processes that occur there.


3.41 Digestive Hormones, Accessory Organs, & Secretions

3.42 Carbohydrate Digestion in the Small Intestine

3.43 Protein Digestion in the Small Intestine

3.44 Lipid Digestion in the Small Intestine

References & Links

  2. Author unknown, NCI,
  5. Byrd-Bredbenner C, Moe G, Beshgetoor D, Berning J. (2009) Wardlaw’s perspectives in nutrition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

3.41 Digestive Hormones, Accessory Organs & Secretions

Before we go into the digestive details of the small intestine, it is important that you have a basic understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the following digestion accessory organs: pancreas, liver, and gallbladder. Digestion accessory organs assist in digestion, but are not part of the gastrointestinal tract. How are these organs involved?

Upon entering the duodenum, the chyme causes the release of two hormones from the small intestine: secretin and cholecystokinin (CCK, previously known as pancreozymin) in response to acid and fat, respectively. These hormones have multiple effects on different tissues. In the pancreas, secretin stimulates the secretion of bicarbonate (HCO3), while CCK stimulates the secretion of digestive enzymes. The bicarbonate and digestive enzymes released together are collectively known as pancreatic juice, which travels to the small intestine, as shown below.

Figure 3.411 The hormones secretin and CCK stimulate the pancreas to secrete pancreatic juice1

In addition, CCK also stimulates the contraction of the gallbladder causing the secretion of bile into the duodenum.


 The pancreas is found behind the stomach and has two different portions. It has an endocrine (hormone-producing) portion that contains alpha and beta cells that secrete the hormones glucagon and insulin, respectively. However, the vast majority of the pancreas is made up of acini, or acinar cells, that are responsible for producing pancreatic juice. The following video does a nice job of showing and explaining the function of the different pancreatic cells.

Web Link

Video: The Pancreas (First 53 seconds)

Bicarbonate is a base (high pH) meaning that it can help neutralize acid. You can find sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3, baking soda) on the ruler below to get an idea of its pH.

Figure 3.412 pH of some common items2

The main digestive enzymes in pancreatic juice are listed in the table below. Their function will be discussed further in later subsections.

Table 3.411 Enzymes in pancreatic juice

Pancreatic alpha-amylase
Pancreatic Lipase & Procolipase*
Phospholipase A2
Cholesterol Esterase

*Not an enzyme


 The liver is the largest internal and most metabolically active organ in the body. The figure below shows the liver and the accessory organs position relative to the stomach.

Figure 3.413 Location of digestion accessory organs relative to the stomach3

The liver is made up two major types of cells. The primary liver cells are hepatocytes, which carry out most of the liver’s functions. Hepatic is another term for liver. For example, if you are going to refer to liver concentrations of a certain nutrient, these are often reported as hepatic concentrations. The other major cell type is the hepatic stellate (also known as Ito) cells. These are fat storing cells in the liver. These two cell types are depicted below.

Figure 3.414 Hepatocytes (PC) and hepatic stellate cells (HSC) along with an electron microscope image showing the lipid droplets within a stellate cell4

The liver’s major role in digestion is to produce bile. This is a greenish-yellow fluid that is composed primarily of bile acids, but also contains cholesterol, phospholipids, and the pigments bilirubin and biliverdin. Bile acids are synthesized from cholesterol. The two primary bile acids are chenodeoxycholic acid and cholic acid. In the same way that fatty acids are found in the form of salts, these bile acids can also be found as salts. These salts have an (-ate) ending, as shown below.

Figure 3.415 Structures of the 2 primary bile acids

Bile acids, much like phospholipids, have a hydrophobic and hydrophilic end. This makes them excellent emulsifiers that are instrumental in fat digestion. Bile is then transported to the gallbladder.


 The gallbladder is a small, sac-like organ found just off the liver (see figures above). Its primary function is to store and concentrate bile made by the liver. The bile is then transported to the duodenum through the common bile duct.

Why do we need bile?

 Bile is important because fat is hydrophobic and the environment in the lumen of the small intestine is watery. In addition, there is an unstirred water layer that fat must cross to reach the enterocytes in order to be absorbed.

Figure 3.416 Fat is not happy alone in the watery environment of the small intestine.

Here triglycerides form large triglyceride droplets to keep the interaction with the watery environment to a minimum. This is inefficient for digestion, because enzymes cannot access the interior of the droplet. Bile acts as an emulsifier, or detergent. It, along with phospholipids, forms smaller triglyceride droplets that increase the surface area that is accessible for triglyceride digestion enzymes, as shown below.

Figure 3.417 Bile acids and phospholipids facilitate the production of smaller triglyceride droplets.

Secretin and CCK also control the production and secretion of bile. Secretin stimulates the flow of bile from the liver to the gallbladder. CCK stimulates the gallbladder to contract, causing bile to be secreted into the duodenum, as shown below.

Figure 3.418 Secretion stimulates bile flow from liver; CCK stimulates the gallbladder to contract3

References & Links

  1. Don Bliss, NCI,


The Pancreas –

3.42 Carbohydrate Digestion in the Small Intestine

The small intestine is the primary site of carbohydrate digestion. Pancreatic alpha-amylase is the primary carbohydrate digesting enzyme. Pancreatic alpha-amylase, like salivary amylase, cleaves the alpha 1-4 glycosidic bonds of carbohydrates, reducing them to simpler carbohydrates, such as glucose, maltose, maltotriose, and dextrins (oligosaccharides containing 1 or more alpha 1-6 glycosidic bonds). Pancreatic amylase is also unable to cleave the branch point alpha 1-6 bonds1.

Figure 3.421 The function of pancreatic amylase
Figure 3.422 Products of pancreatic amylase

The pancreatic amylase products, along with the disaccharides sucrose and lactose, then move to the surface of the enterocyte. Here, there are disaccharidase enzymes (lactase, sucrase, maltase) on the outside of the enterocyte. Enzymes, like these, that are on the outside of cell walls are referred to as ectoenzymes. Individual monosaccharides are formed when lactase cleaves lactose, sucrase cleaves sucrose, and maltase cleaves maltose. There is also another brush border enzyme, alpha-dextrinase. This enzyme cleaves alpha 1-6 glycosidic bonds in dextrins, primarily the branch point bonds in amylopectin. The products from these brush border enzymes are the single monosaccharides glucose, fructose, and galactose that are ready for absorption into the enterocyte1.

Figure 3.423 Disaccharidases on the outside of the enterocyte.

References & Links

  1. Gropper SS, Smith JL, Groff JL. (2008) Advanced nutrition and human metabolism. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

3.43 Protein Digestion in the Small Intestine

The small intestine is the major site of protein digestion by proteases (enzymes that cleave proteins). The pancreas secretes a number of proteases as zymogens into the duodenum where they must be activated before they can cleave peptide bonds1. This activation occurs through an activation cascade. A cascade is a series of reactions in which one step activates the next in a sequence that results in an amplification of the response. An example of a cascade is shown below.

Figure 3.431 An example of a cascade, with one event leading to many more events

In this example, A activates B, B activates C, D, and E, C activates F and G, D activates H and I, and E activates K and L. Cascades also help to serve as control points for certain process. In the protease cascade, the activation of B is really important because it starts the cascade.

The protease/colipase activation scheme starts with the enzyme enteropeptidase (secreted from the intestinal brush border) that converts trypsinogen to trypsin. Trypsin can activate all the proteases (including itself) and colipase (involved in fat digestion)1 as shown in the 2 figures below.

Figure 3.432 Protease/colipase activation cascade
Figure 3.433 The protease/colipase activation cascade

The products of the action of the proteases on proteins are dipeptides, tripeptides, and individual amino acids, as shown below.

Figure 3.434 Products of pancreatic proteases

At the brush border, much like disaccharidases, there are peptidases that cleave some peptides down to amino acids. Not all peptides are cleaved to individual amino acid, because small peptides can be taken up into the enterocyte, thus, the peptides do not need to be completely broken down to individual amino acids. Thus the end products of protein digestion are primarily dipeptides and tripeptides, along with individual amino acids1.

Figure 3.435 Peptidases are produced by the brush border to cleave some peptides into amino acids

References & Links

  1. Gropper SS, Smith JL, Groff JL. (2008) Advanced nutrition and human metabolism. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

3.44 Lipid Digestion in the Small Intestine

The small intestine is the major site for lipid digestion. There are specific enzymes for the digestion of triglycerides, phospholipids, and cleavage of esters from cholesterol. We will look at each in this section.


 The pancreas secretes pancreatic lipase into the duodenum as part of pancreatic juice. This major triglyceride digestion enzyme preferentially cleaves the sn-1 and sn-3 fatty acids from triglycerides. This cleavage results in the formation of a 2-monoglyceride and two free fatty acids as shown below.

Figure 3.441 Pancreatic lipase cleaves the sn-1 and sn-3 fatty acids of triglycerides
Figure 3.442 The products of pancreatic lipase are a 2-monoglyceride and two free fatty acids

To assist lipase, colipase serves as an anchor point to help lipase attach to the triglyceride droplet.

Figure 3.443 Colipase helps anchor lipase to the triglyceride droplet


 The enzyme phospholipase A2 cleaves the C-2 fatty acid of lecithin, producing lysolecithin and a free fatty acid.

Figure 3.444 Phospholipase A2 cleaves the C-2 fatty acid of lecithin
Figure 3.445 Products of phospholipase A2 cleavage

Cholesterol Esters

 The fatty acid in cholesterol esters is cleaved by the enzyme, cholesterol esterase, producing cholesterol and a free fatty acid.

Figure 3.446 Cholesterol esterase cleaves fatty acids off of cholesterol
Figure 3.447 Products of cholesterol esterase

Formation of Mixed Micelles

 If nothing else happened at this point, the 2-monoglycerides and fatty acids produced by pancreatic lipase would form micelles. The hydrophilic heads would be outward and the fatty acids would be buried on the interior. These micelles are not sufficiently water-soluble to cross the unstirred water layer to get to the brush border of enterocytes. Thus, mixed micelles are formed containing cholesterol, bile acids, and lysolecithin in addition to the 2-monoglycerides and fatty acids, as illustrated below1.

Figure 3.448 Normal (left) and mixed (right) micelles

Mixed micelles are more water-soluble, allowing them to cross the unstirred water layer to the brush border of enterocytes for absorption.

Figure 3.449 Mixed micelles can cross the unstirred water layer for absorption into the enterocytes

References & Links

  1. Gropper SS, Smith JL, Groff JL. (2008) Advanced nutrition and human metabolism. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

3.5 Macronutrient Digestion Review

The following figures review the digestion of the different macronutrients.

Carbohydrate Digestion

Figure 3.51 Review of carbohydrate digestion1

Protein Digestion

Figure 3.52 Review of protein digestion1

Lipid Digestion

Figure 3.53 Review of triglyceride digestion1

Cholesterol Ester and Phospholipid Digestion


Figure 3.54 Review of cholesterol ester and phospholipid digestion1

After digestion, the products below are ready for uptake into the enterocyte.

Figure 3.55 Macronutrient digestion products ready for uptake into the enterocyte

References & Links


3.6 The Large Intestine

We have reached a fork in the road. We could follow the uptake of the digested compounds into the enterocyte or we could finish following what has escaped digestion and is going to continue into the large intestine. Obviously from the title of this section we are going to do the latter. As we learned previously, fiber is a crude term for what has survived digestion and has reached the large intestine.

Figure 3.61 The fork in the road between finishing digestion in the colon and absorption into the enterocyte

The ileocecal valve is the sphincter between the ileum and the large intestine. This name should make more sense as we go through the anatomy of the large intestine.

Figure 3.62 The ileocecal valve1

The large intestine consists of the colon, the rectum, and the anus. The colon can be further divided into the cecum (hence the -cecal in ileocecal valve, ileo- refers to ileum), ascending colon, transverse colon, descending colon, and sigmoid colon as shown below.

Figure 3.63 Anatomy of the large intestine and rectum2

The large intestine is responsible for absorbing remaining water and electrolytes (sodium, potassium, and chloride). It also forms and excretes feces. The large intestine contains large amounts of microorganisms like those shown in the figure below.

Figure 3.64 Magnified image of bacteria3

The large intestine can also be referred to as the gut. There are a large number of microorganisms found throughout the gastrointestinal tract that collectively are referred to as the flora, microflora, biota, or microbiota. Technically, microbiota is the preferred term because flora means “pertaining to plants”. There are 10 times more microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract than cells in the whole human body4. As can be seen in the figure below, the density of microorganisms increases as you move down the digestive tract.

Figure 3.65 Relative amount of bacteria in selected locations of the GI tract. cfu/ml = colony forming unit, a measure of the number of live microorganisms in 1 mL of digestive sample5,6

As described in the fiber sections, there are two different fates for fiber once it reaches the large intestine. The fermentable, viscous fiber is fermented by bacteria. Fermentation is the metabolism of compounds by the microorganisms in the gut. An example of fermentation is the utilization of the oligosaccharides raffinose and stachyose by microorganisms that results in the production of gas, which can lead to flatulence. Also, some bile acids are fermented by microorganisms to form secondary bile acids that can be reabsorbed. These secondary bile acids represent approximately 20% of the total bile acids in our body. Fermentable fibers can be used to form short-chain fatty acids that can then be absorbed and used by the body. The nonfermentable, nonviscous fiber is not really altered and will be a component of feces, that is then excreted through the rectum and anus. This process involves both an internal and external sphincter that are shown in figure 3.63 above.


3.61 Probiotics & Prebiotics

References & Links

  4. Guarner F, Malagelada J. (2003) Gut flora in health and disease. The Lancet 361(9356): 512.
  5. DiBaise J, Zhang H, Crowell M, Krajmalnik-Brown R, Decker , et al. (2008) Gut microbiota and its possible relationship with obesity. Mayo Clin Proc 83(4): 460.
  6. Adapted from:

3.61 Probiotics & Prebiotics

Recently there has been increased attention given to the potential of a person’s microbiota to impact health. This is because there are beneficial and non-beneficial bacteria inhabiting our gastrointestinal tracts. Thus, theoretically, if you can increase the beneficial or decrease the non- beneficial bacteria, there may be improved health outcomes. In response to this, probiotics and prebiotics have been identified/developed. A probiotic is a live microorganism that is consumed, and colonizes in the body as shown in the figures below.

Figure 3.611 Probiotics the consumption of the bacteria itself

A prebiotic is a nondigestible food component that selectively stimulates the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria. An example of a prebiotic is inulin, which is shown in the figure below.

Figure 3.612 Inulin, an indigestible food component that is a commonly used prebiotic

The net result is the same for both prebiotics and probiotics, an increase in the beneficial/non beneficial microorganism ratio.

Figure 3.613 An effective prebiotic or probiotic should result in an increase in the beneficial bacteria

The following video does a nice job of explaining and illustrating how probiotics work. The NCCAM website is a good source of information if you have further questions on the topic.

Web Links

Video: Probiotics (3:40)

NCCAM: Probiotics

Some common examples of probiotics are DanActive® and Activia®.

Web Links

DanActive® (inactive link as of 05/18/2021)


The claims that companies made about their produce probiotic products have come under scrutiny. Dannon settled with the US Federal Trade Commission to drop claims that its probiotic products will help prevent colds or alleviate digestive problems, as seen in the top link below. General Mills also settled a lawsuit that accused them of a falsely advertising the digestive benefits of Yo-Plus a product it no longer sells, as seen in the second link.

Web Link
Dannon Agrees to Drop Exaggerated Health Claims for Activia Yogurt and DanActive Dairy Drink
General Mills Settles Yo-Plus Lawsuit

Some examples of prebiotics include inulin, other fructose-containing oligosaccharides and polysaccharides, and resistant starch. Inulin is a polysaccharide that contains mainly fructoses that are joined by beta-bonds, which allows them to survive digestion. The structure of inulin is shown below.

Figure 3.614 Structure of inulin1

Resistant starch is so named because it is a starch that is resistant to digestion. As a result, it arrives in the colon to be fermented.

References & Links

  2. Douglas L, Sanders M. (2008) Probiotics and prebiotics in dietetics practice. American Dietetic Association.Journal of the American Dietetic Association 108(3): 510.


NCCAM: Probiotics –

DanActive® –

Activia® –

Danimals® – Campaign Markets Activia to Wider Audience –
General Mills Settles Yo-Plus Lawsuit –{40F62478-1AA4-49DF-9330-E41E19E946D0}&cck=1


Probiotics –


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