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Vitamins, Minerals and Dietary Supplements

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Oligosaccharides

What is oligosaccharides?

Oligosaccharides are short chains of sugar molecules. There are several kinds of oligosaccharides, each made from different types of sugars.

Fructo-oligosaccharides and inulin oligosaccharides consist of short chains of fructose molecules, while galacto-oligosaccharides consist of short chains of galactose molecules. All three types of oligosaccharides occur naturally, but they can be only partially digested by humans. The undigested portions remain in the body, and serve as food for probiotics and other "friendly" intestinal bacteria.

Research has established a positive relationship between oligosaccharides and friendly bacteria; intake of oligosaccharides can increase the amount of friendly bacteria in the gut, while simultaneously reducing the number of harmful bacteria. Oligosaccharide supplements may also increase production of several fatty acids, increase absorption of magnesium and calcium, and lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. In addition, oligosaccharides may reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood. These results are best seen in people with elevated triglyceride/cholesterol levels, or people with diabetes.

How many oligosaccharides should I take?

Scientists estimate that the average American ingests between 800 and 1,000 mg of oligosaccharides per day. To promote growth of friendly intestinal bacteria, some practitioners recommend higher doses - between 2,000 to 3,000 mg per day, eaten with meals. Some studies have used much higher amounts - 8 to 20 grams per day.

What forms of oligosaccharides are available?

Oligosaccharides are found in a variety of fruits and vegetables. Inulin oligosaccharides and fructo-oligosaccharides are present in artichokes, leeks, onions, asparagus and chicory. Galacto-oligosaccharides are found in soybeans and can also be synthesized from lactose. All three types of oligosaccharides are also available as supplements, either in capsule, tablet or powder form.

What can happen if I take too many oligosaccharides? Are there any interactions I should be aware of? What precautions should I take?

Oligosaccharide supplements are usually well-tolerated by individuals, although they may cause flatulence and bloating in some people. High levels (.40 grams per day) may cause diarrhea. In addition, some people may be allergic to fructo-oligosaccharides; in these cases, supplementation should be avoided.

As of this writing, there are no well-known drug interactions with oligosaccharides. As always, make sure to consult with a licensed health care provider before taking oligosaccharides or any other dietary supplement or herbal remedy.

References

  • Bhounik Y, Vahedi K, Achour L, et al. Short-chain fructo-oligosaccharide administration dose-dependently increases fecal bifidobacteria in healthy humans. J Nutr 1999;129:113-6.
  • Coussement PA. Inulin and oligofructose: safe intakes and legal status. J Nutr 1999;129:1412S-7S.
  • Davidson MH, Synecki C, Maki KC, et al. Effects of dietary inulin in serum lipids in men and women with hypercholesterolaemia. Nutr Res 1998;3:503-17.
  • 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.
  • Roberfroid MB, Van Loo JAE, Gibson GR. The bifidogenic nature of chicory inulin and its hydrolysis products. J Nutr 1998;128:11-9.

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