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Lastly, one of the advertised benefits of IMO is possible prebiotic activity. Prebiotics are critical, as they feed the beneficial bacteria in our digestive system, specifically in the large intestine. These bacteria have several amazing functions, such as lowering body fat, improving insulin sensitivity, and lowering depression. Two “gold standard” prebiotics in the industry are inulin and fructooligosaccharides (FOS). Inulin and FOS are non-digestible carbohydrates that robustly increase beneficial bacteria. The challenge, however, is that both inulin and FOS, due to their rapid digestibility by intestinal bacteria, result in low gastric tolerance, and, ultimately, gastric distress. Additionally, inulin and FOS, when added to protein bars or other goods, may degrade over time into individual sugar units. Regardless, one study comparing inulin to IMOs, found that the prebiotic activity in inulin is 14 times greater than that of IMOs. This is logical because, as you recall from above, approximately 70% to 90% of IMOs are digested. As such, only a small portion of these prebiotic fibers make it to the large intestine, in which two out of three studies have demonstrated that this small portion may indeed have some prebiotic effects.
IMOs can be made in several ways, but they are primarily derived from a sugar called maltose. IMO is promoted as a prebiotic fiber with a light sweetness profile. Its functional properties (i.e., moisture retention, low viscosity) make it well-suited for nutrition bars, cookies, candies, and the like. In order to fully understand IMOs and how the body processes them, we first need to understand how starches are digested in the body. Starches, also known as polysaccharides, are long and sometimes branched chains of glucose molecules. Initially, starch digestion begins in the small intestine with an enzyme called α-amylase. A-amylase breaks these long glucose chains into much shorter chains, called oligosaccharides, which are composed of anywhere from two to approximately 10 glucose units. Following this, specific enzymes on the brush border of the small intestine break down these oligosaccharides even further, into individual glucose units (monosaccharides) which are then absorbed.