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Home > Healthy Living > Health Library > Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and Other Oligosaccharides
The term "oligosaccharide" refers to a short chain of sugar
molecules ("oligo" means "few" and "saccharide"
means "sugar.") Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and inulin, which are
found in many vegetables, consist of short chains of fructose molecules.
Galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), which also occur naturally, consist of short
chains of galactose molecules. These compounds can be only partially digested by
humans.1, 2, 3, 4 When oligosaccharides are consumed, the undigested
portion serves as food for "friendly" bacteria, such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus species.
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In a double-blind trial, the addition of a mixture of 90% galacto-oligosaccharides and 10% fructo-oligosaccharides to infant formula prevented the development of eczema in infants who were at high risk of developing eczema. The incidence of eczema in the first six months of life was 9.8% in the group receiving oligosaccharides, compared with 23.1% in the placebo group, a statistically significant difference. The product used in this study was designed to mimic the oligosaccharide content of human milk, and was added at a concentration of 0.8 grams per 100 ml.
Several double-blind trials have evaluated the efficacy of fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) or inulin (a related compound) for lowering blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. These trials have shown that in individuals with elevated total cholesterol or triglyceride levels, including people with type 2 diabetes, FOS or inulin (in amounts ranging from 8 to 20 grams daily) produced significant reductions in triglyceride levels; however, the effect on cholesterol levels was inconsistent. In people with normal or low cholesterol or triglyceride levels, FOS or inulin produced little effect.
One preliminary study found iron levels to be reduced after both minor and major surgeries, and iron supplementation prior to surgery was not able to prevent this reduction. A controlled trial found that intravenous iron was more effective than oral iron for restoring normal iron levels after spinal surgery in children. One animal study reported that supplementation with fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) improved the absorption of iron and prevented anemia after surgery, but no human trials have been done to confirm this finding. Some researchers speculate that iron deficiency after a trauma such as surgery is an important mechanism for avoiding infection, and they suggest that iron supplements should not be given after surgery.
The average daily intake of oligosaccharides by people in the United States is estimated to be about 800 to 1,000 mg. For the promotion of healthy bacterial flora, the usual recommendation for FOS, GOS, or inulin is 2,000 to 3,000 mg per day with meals. In the studies on diabetes and high blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides), amounts ranged from 8 to 20 grams per day.
FOS and inulin are found naturally in Jerusalem artichoke, burdock, chicory, leeks, onions, and asparagus. FOS products derived from chicory root contain significant quantities of inulin,5 a fiber widely distributed in fruits, vegetables and plants, which is classified as a food ingredient (not as an additive) and is considered to be safe to eat.6 In fact, inulin is a significant part of the daily diet of most of the world's population.7 FOS can also be synthesized by enzymes of the fungus Apergillus niger acting on sucrose. GOS is naturally found in soybeans and can be synthesized from lactose (milk sugar). FOS, GOS, and inulin are available as nutritional supplements in capsules, tablets, and as a powder.
As FOS, GOS, and inulin are not essential nutrients, no deficiency state exists.
Generally, oligosaccharides are well tolerated. Some people reported increased flatulence in some of the studies. At higher levels of intake, that is, in excess of 40 grams per day, FOS and the other oligosaccharides may induce diarrhea.
There is a report of a 39-year old man having a life-threatening allergic reaction after consuming high amounts of inulin from multiple sources, including FOS.8Allergy to inulin in this person was confirmed by laboratory tests. Such sensitivities are extremely rare. People with a confirmed sensitivity to inulin should probably avoid FOS.
1. Molis C, Flourie B, Ouarne F, et al. Digestion, excretion, and energy value of fructooligosaccharides in healthy humans. Am J Clin Nutr 1996;64:324-8.
2. van Dokkum W, Wezendonk B, Srikumar TS, van den Heuvel EG. Effect of nondigestible oligosaccharides on large-bowel functions, blood lipid concentrations and glucose absorption in young healthy male subjects. Eur J Clin Nutr 1999;53:1-7.
3. Alles MS, Hautvast JGA, Nagengast FM, et al. Fate of fructo-oligosaccharides in the human intestine. Br J Nutr 1996;76:211-21.
4. Roberfroid M. Dietary fibre, inulin and oligofructose. A review comparing their physiological effects. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 1993;33:103-48 [review].
5. Duke, JA. Handbook of Phytochemical Constituents of GRAS Herbs and Other Economic Plants. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1992.
6. Carabin IG, Flamm WG. Evaluation of safety of inulin and oligofructose as dietary fiber. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol 1999;30:268-82 [review].
7. Coussement PA. Inulin and oligofructose: safe intakes and legal status. J Nutr 1999;129:1412S-7S [review].
8. Gay-Crosier F, Schreiber G, Hauser C. Anaphylaxis from inulin in vegetables and processed food. N Engl J Med 2000;342:1372 [letter].
Last Review: 06-05-2015
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