The human colonic microbiota imparts metabolic versatility on the colon, interacts at many levels in healthy intestinal and systemic metabolism, and plays protective roles in chronic disease and acute infection. Colonic bacterial metabolism is largely dependant on dietary residues from the upper gut. Carbohydrates, resistant to digestion, drive colonic bacterial fermentation and the resulting end products are considered beneficial. Many colonic species ferment proteins but the end products are not always beneficial and include toxic compounds, such as amines and phenols. Most components of a typical Western diet are heat processed. The Maillard reaction, involving food protein and sugar, is a complex network of reactions occurring during thermal processing. The resultant modified protein resists digestion in the small intestine but is available for colonic bacterial fermentation. Little is known about the fate of the modified protein but some Maillard reaction products (MRP) are biologically active by, e.g. altering bacterial population levels within the colon or, upon absorption, interacting with human disease mechanisms by induction of inflammatory responses. This review presents current understanding of the interactions between MRP and intestinal bacteria. Recent scientific advances offering the possibility of elucidating the consequences of microbe-MRP interactions within the gut are discussed.
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