What are Oligosaccharides and Why Should You Add Them to Your Diet?

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The science is growing behind the nutritional and health benefits of oligosaccharides

Oligosaccharides (Greek oligo = few; sacchar = sugar) are a type of carbohydrate formed when multiple (typically two to 12) sugars are linked together. They fall between carbohydrates that are monosaccharides (simple sugar) and polysaccharides (starches that typically have 12 or more linked sugars).[i]

Chicory root (from which inulin is commercially extracted) and Jerusalem artichokes (the root of a member of the sunflower family) have the most oligosaccharides, but they can also be found in onions, leeks, garlic, legumes (beans, lentils), asparagus and jicama.[ii]

Oligosaccharides are typically classified by their plant or substance sources.  Scientists are increasingly interested in studying the health benefits of oligosaccharides and their many varieties because of their benefits as prebiotics as well as antitumor, immunity-increasing and antioxidant characteristics.

Oligosaccharides as Prebiotics

Fructo- (FOS) (from artichokes or onions and related family) and inulin-oligosaccharides (from chicory root) are the most used "prebiotic" additives in baked goods and other foods to date. According to rigid criteria for prebiotics, only FOS and trans-galacto (TOS) oligosaccharides are labeled prebiotics.[iii]

Prebiotics are not digested by pancreatic enzymes and thus are available for metabolism by intestinal microorganisms, mainly Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus.[iv] Because of their inability to be digested, oligosaccharides as prebiotics stimulate the growth of good bacteria in your colon and have many health benefits.[v] For example, researchers have reported positive effects on:[vi],[vii]


Mineral absorption

Lipid metabolism

Glucose metabolism

Cognitive decline and neurodegeneration (evident in Alzheimer's)


Potential Prebiotics

Recent research shows prebiotic properties of other oligosaccharides including galacto (GOS), inulin and pectin (POS) oligosaccharides.[viii],[ix] GOS prebiotic foods, which do not impact gluten-sensitive patients, are found primarily in the legume family (lentils, chickpea, peas, kidney beans).[x]

Increasing levels of GOS and FOS has been associated with colon cancer prevention due to their prebiotic characteristics.[xi] Inulin (or chicory root fiber) as a potential prebiotic has been shown to decrease the risk of diabetes by promoting weight loss and reducing lipids in pre-diabetic individuals.[xii] Research confirms that oligosaccharides, in general, may lower obesity risk due to their prebiotic activity in the gut.[xiii]

POS (made from agricultural byproducts such as citrus pulp/peels, apple pomace and sugar beet pulp primarily)[xiv] is suggested as a new class of prebiotics, which show promising health effects, including:[xv],[xvi]

Anti-colon cancer

Cardiovascular protection

Reduction of damage by heavy metals

Anti-obesity effects

Antitoxic effects

Anti-infection properties

Antibacterial properties

Antioxidant properties

POS (made from hawthorne) was found to decrease negative side effects (such as cell damage) of baby formulas made synthetically from FOS/GOS oligosaccharides.[xvii]

A clinical trial of xylo (XOS) oligosaccharide supplementation in both healthy and pre-diabetic subjects showed XOS's prebiotic properties may reverse changes in the gut microbiota during the development of diabetes.[xviii]

Xylan is extracted from XOS and often made into xylitol, a healthier sweetener, with prebiotic effects of reducing blood glucose, triglyceride and cholesterol levels.[xix]

Antioxidant, Immunity and Antitumor Effects

In a recent meta-study, two oligosaccharides -- chito (COS), made from crustaceans such as crab, shrimp and crawfish, and xylo (XOS), a synthetic supplement mostly made from corn cobs and birch wood -- were found to have the most meaningful antioxidant activity, particularly when they were polymerized naturally using enzymes.[xx]

Recent scientific advances have detailed the health benefits of COS, which include lowering blood cholesterol and blood pressure, protective effects against infections, controlling arthritis, improvement of calcium uptake and antitumor properties.[xxi]

Manuka honey, an XOS, was also confirmed as a source to lower the incidence of infectious diseases.[xxii] A bamboo extract high in XOS was shown to effectively lower cytotoxicity in advanced leukemia cells.[xxiii] XOS has been associated with gut health, anti-inflammation, immunity and anti-cancer benefits as well.[xxiv],[xxv],[xxvi],[xxvii]

Seaweed, particularly red, contains many agaro (AOS) and carrageenan oligosaccharides, which exhibit prebiotic, immuno-modulatory (strengthens and balances the immune response), antioxidant and antitumor properties.[xxviii] Algae derivatives have been linked with decreases in inflammation and infections, such as sepsis in animal trials.[xxix]

Marine algae AOSs have also been identified as important cancer fighters in breast, lung, gastrointestinal, cervical and liver cancers, due to their antimicrobial and antioxidant activities.[xxx]

Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) from breast milk have been scientifically proven to successfully modulate the development of the neonatal immune system.[xxxi] In a study of human rotovirus, two HMOs present in breast milk had the highest anti-infection impact.[xxxii]

Reduce Allergic Symptoms and Environmental Toxicity

Both FOS and GOS have been shown to lower allergic symptoms, as a function of improving gut health.[xxxiii] Because of this ability, FOSs, in particular, have been successfully used with other remedies to protect against a peanut-allergic anaphylactic (severe) response.

Recently, pre-treatment using COSs reduced lung inflammation in rats that were exposed to air pollution toxins, a promising sign that it could help with environmental toxins and resultant lung issues in humans.[xxxiv]

Quick Reference for Oligosaccharides

So how do you keep all these oligosaccharides straight and what can you do with this information that will positively benefit your health and the people you care about? For a handy reference, see Table 1.

Table 1. Using Oligosaccharides for Maximum Health Benefits


Nutrition Recommendations

Name of Oligosaccharide

Best Health Benefits

1. Jerusalem artichokes


Onion family (white onions, garlic, leeks, scallions)



Add foods to diet.


Garlic pills/extracts are common supplements.

Fructo (FOS)


colon cancer prevention, antioxidant, decrease allergic symptoms, lower cognitive decline

2. Chicory (root or root powder)


Salad chicory (endives, radicchio, frisée and escarole)



Add powder to coffee or substitute for coffee.


Add chicory salads and jicama to diet.


Look for protein bars with inulin.

Chicory Root


Fiber or Inulin

Potential prebiotic,

reduced risk of osteoporosis and atherosclerosis

3.  Bamboo shoots, fruits, vegetables, milk, and honey




Xylan (synthesized from corn cobs and birch wood)

Add foods to diet.


Use xylitol as a sweetener.


Take a prebiotic supplement with xylan or bamboo extract.

Xylo (XOS) -- xylan is in most plant cells (fruits/veggies)


potential prebiotic,

anti-infection, prevent diabetes, lower cholesterol, cytotoxic in advanced leukemia

4. Crustaceans (crab, shrimp and crawfish shells)                                  

Find supplements with chito or chitolan listed.

Chito (COS)

Lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, anti-arthritic, anti-infection, antitumor, antitoxic, anti-cancer

5. Algae (seaweed)

Add sushi (wraps are often made of red seaweed).


Take capsule supplements with algae (red, brown, blue/green).

Agaro (AOS)



Potential prebiotic, immuno-modulatory, antioxidant, antitumor, anti-inflammation, antimicrobial, anti-cancer

6. Legumes (lentils, chickpeas (hummus), green peas, lima beans, kidney beans)


Cruciferous veggies (red cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts)


Fruits (nectarine, watermelon, pear, raspberry, blueberry, figs)


Human breast milk


Add legumes to diet in small doses (no more than ¼ to ½ cup serving per meal).


Add fruits and veggies.


Take related supplements.


TOS is synthetically made only.


Breast milk is preferred to formula for infant immunity.


HMOs from breast milk inserted into formula help fight infections.

Galacto (GOS)


Raffinose (ROS)


Trans-galacto (TOS)


Human Milk (HMO)


prebiotic (some potential), colon cancer prevention, decrease constipation, decrease allergic symptoms,

virus protection, anti-infection


7. Citrus fruit, apples, plums, sugar beets (pulp/wastes)


Hawthorne berries

Add pectin by eating most fruits, including jams or jellies.


Pectin is synthesized from wastes and available as a supplement as powder or capsules.


Hawthorne supplements are extract/capsule forms.

Pectin (POS)


potential prebiotic, anti-colon cancer, cardiovascular protection, reduction of damage by heavy metals, anti-obesity effects, antitoxic, anti-infection, antibacterial, reduce cell damage

Future Actions and Research

The research on oligosaccharides (OGS) is growing in its complexity and specificity to health, nutrition and disease prevention (GreenMedInfo.com research includes OGS, FOS, chicory/inulin, COS, algae, GOS, cruciferous veggies and POS). The scientific community and food industry is delving into the benefits and uses of oligosaccharides since they have such wide-ranging nutritional benefits and are readily available and low in cost. 

Their prebiotic properties associated with lower cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease risks and their antitumor, immune building, anti-infection, antitoxin and antioxidant characteristics are just a few of the reasons they are positioned for intensive future focus. This will be an evolving topic, and more results using human trials will continue to enlighten and inform our choices of oligosaccharides, and supplements derived from them, for our overall well-being.


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[ii]  Dolson, Laura. The Benefits of Adding Oligosaccharides and Prebiotics to Your Diet https://www.verywellfit.com/oligosaccharides-and-prebiotics-health-benefits-2242223

[iii] Marcel Roberfroid, Prebiotics: The Concept Revisited, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 137, Issue 3, March 2007, Pages 830S-837S, https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/137.3.830S

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[vi] New Hope Network, Oligosaccharides Revealing More Health Benefits https://www.newhope.com/ingredients/oligosaccharides-revealing-more-health-benefits

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[xvi] Sánchez D, Muguerza B, Moulay L, Hernandez R, Miguel M, Aleixandre A. Highly methoxylated pectin improves insulin resistance and other cardiometabolic risk factors in Zucker fatty rats. J Agric Food Chem. 2008;56(10):3574-3581. PMID: 18433105, doi: 10.1021/jf703598j

[xvii] Rugang Zhu, Mengling Hong, Chunyun Zhuang, Lijiao Zhang, Congya Wang, Jianli Liu, Zhenhua Duan, Feifei Shang, Fengqing Hu, Tiejing Li, Chong Ning, Gang Chen. Pectin oligosaccharides from hawthorn (Crataegus pinnatifida Bunge. Var. major) inhibit the formation of advanced glycation end products in infant formula milk powder. Food Funct. 2019 Dec 11 ;10(12):8081-8093. PMID: 31735943

[xviii] Jieping Yang1, Paula H. Summanen , Susanne M. Henning , Mark Hsu , Heiman Lam , Jianjun Huang , Chi-Hong Tseng , Scot E. Dowd , Sydney M. Finegold , David Heber  and Zhaoping Li.    Xylooligosaccharide supplementation alters gut bacteria in both healthy and prediabetic adults: a pilot study. Front Physiol. 2015; 6: 216. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2015.00216, PMCID: PMC4528259, PMID: 26300782

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[xxiii] Hiroki Ando, Hideki Ohba, Tsuyoshi Sakaki, Kazunori Takamine, Yoshitaka Kamino, Sawako Moriwaki, Rumiana Bakalova, Yoshimitsu Uemura, Yasuo Hatate. Hot-compressed-water decomposed products from bamboo manifest a selective cytotoxicity against acute lymphoblastic leukemia cells. Toxicol In Vitro. 2004 Dec;18(6):765-71. PMID: 15465641

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[xxvii] I. Jain, V. Kumar, T. Satyanarayana, Xylooligosaccharides: an economical prebiotic from agroresidues and their health benefits, Indian J. Exp. Biol., 53 (2015), pp. 131-142. PMID: 25872243

[xxviii] Kit-Leong Cheong, Hua-Mai Qiu, Hong Du, Yang Liu, and Bilal Muhammad Khan. Oligosaccharides Derived from Red Seaweed: Production, Properties, and Potential Health and Cosmetic Applications, Molecules. 2018 Oct; 23(10): 2451. PMID: 30257445, PMCID: PMC6222765, DOI: 10.3390/molecules23102451

[xxix] Jing-Shiun Jan, Chih-Hao Yang, Mong-Heng Wang, Fan-Li Lin, Jing-Lun Yen, Irene Hsieh, Maksim Khotimchenko, Tzong-Huei Lee, George Hsiao. Hirsutanol A Attenuates Lipopolysaccharide-Mediated Matrix Metalloproteinase 9 Expression and Cytokines Production and Improves Endotoxemia-Induced Acute Sickness Behavior and Acute Lung Injury. Mar Drugs. 2019 Jun 17 ;17(6). Epub 2019 Jun 17. PMID: 31213027

[xxx] Nouf M Al-Enazi, Amani S Awaad, Mohamed E Zain, Saleh I Alqasoumi. Antimicrobial, antioxidant and anticancer activities of marine algae extracts. Saudi Pharm J. 2018 Jan ;26(1):44-52. Epub 2017 Nov 10. PMID: 29379332

[xxxi] Ling Xiao, Wouter Rph van De Worp, Roderick Stassen, Celine Van Maastrigt, Nienke Kettelarij, Bernd Stahl, Bernadet Blijenberg, Saskia A Overbeek, Gert Folkerts, Johan Garssen, Belinda Van't Land. Human milk oligosaccharides promote immune tolerance via direct interactions with human dendritic cells. Eur J Immunol. 2019 Mar 22. Epub 2019 Mar 22. PMID: 30900752

[xxxii] Daniel R Laucirica, Vassilis Triantis, Ruud Schoemaker, Mary K Estes, Sasirekha Ramani. Milk Oligosaccharides Inhibit Human Rotavirus Infectivity in MA104 Cells. J Nutr. 2017 09 ;147(9):1709-1714. Epub 2017 Jun 21. PMID: 28637685

[xxxiii] Simone M Hayen, Constance F den Hartog Jager, André C Knulst, Edward F Knol, Johan Garssen, Linette E M Willemsen, Henny G Otten. Non-Digestible Oligosaccharides Can Suppress Basophil Degranulation in Whole Blood of Peanut-Allergic Patients. Front Immunol. 2018 ;9:1265. Epub 2018 Jun 11. PMID: 29942305

[xxxiv] Laura Wagenaar, Marianne Bol-Schoenmakers, Giulio Giustarini, Marlotte M Vonk, Betty C A M van Esch, Leon M J Knippels, Johan Garssen, Joost J Smit, Raymond H H Pieters. Dietary Supplementation with Nondigestible Oligosaccharides Reduces Allergic Symptoms and Supports Low Dose Oral Immunotherapy in a Peanut Allergy Mouse Model. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2018 10 ;62(20):e1800369. Epub 2018 Aug 31. PMID: 30102006

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