Non-Starch Polysaccharides

Non-starch polysaccharides (NSPs) is a category of chemicals found naturally in plants.

Collectively non-starch polysaccharides are also known as:

  • dietary fibre (British English spelling)
  • dietary fiber (American English spelling), and
  • roughage (older term in wide colloquial use).

In terms of both chemistry and diet and nutrition, non-starch polysaccharides are a type of carbohydrate.

When to use "non-starch polysaccharides" and when to use "dietary fibre" (or equivalent):

As these refer to the same chemicals some textbooks use them inter-changeably.

In general, 'dietary fibre' is more commonly used when describing and discussing NSPs in the diet, e.g. their functions and benefits and how they are processed by the human digestive system. 'Non-starch polysaccharides' is used when describing and explaining the chemistry, and therefore also the chemical reactions of NSPs. These are closely related because the digestive process includes chemical digestion e.g. due to the actions of acids, enzymes and bile.

  • The page about dietary fibre mentions types of dietary fibre, the functions and benefits of dietary fibre and sources of dietary fibre with examples of high fibre foods and low fibre foods.
  • This page about non-starch polysaccharides explains the general chemical structure of NSPs as compared with e.g. monosaccharides and disaccharides. It also lists examples of specific NSPs.

Polysaccharides compared with other carbohydrates:

As explained on the page about types of sugar (monosaccharides and disaccharides), there are 4 general categories of carbohydrates which can be listed in increasing size and complexity as:

1. Monosaccharides

  • soluble in water, therefore a type of sugar


Simple 'unit' sugar molecules.

2. Disaccharides

  • soluble in water, therefore a type of sugar


Consist of molecules whose form is that of two monosaccharide molecules joined together.

3. Oligosaccharides

  • often only partially digestible by humans


Consist of molecules whose form is that of 3-10 monosaccharide molecules joined together.

4. Polysaccharides

  • insoluble in cold water
  • tasteless
  • either partially digestible or indigestible to humans


Consist of molecules whose form is that of many monosaccharide molecules joined together.

The table above helps to explain the polysaccharide part of the expression non-starch polysaccharides.

That is:

Definition of polysaccharide:

Polysaccharides are carbohydrates (i.e. organic chemicals that consist mainly of the elements carbon, hydrogen and oxygen) whose molecules take the form of long chains of monosaccharides (i.e. simple sugars) all joined together.

The general properties of polysaccharides include insolubility in cold water, no taste, and being indigestible to humans. Polysaccharides have an important role in the human digestive system, as described on the page about dietary fibre.

Main types of polysaccharides:

There are many types of polysaccharides found in plant materials commonly included in human diets.

Examples include:

1. Starch

  • Chemically, consists of long chains of glucose (a monosaccharide, see above) molecules
  • Formed by plants during photosynthesis
  • Present in many plant-based food sources, such as root vegetables. e.g. potatoes, cereals e.g. and pulses.

2. Dextrin

  • Formed when starchy foods (i.e. foods that contain starch, such as bread or potatoes) are baked or toasted. Dextrin is formed as part of the dry 'crust'
  • Dextrin is more soluble than starch

3. Cellulose

  • Chemically, consists of long chains of glucose (a monosaccharide - see above) molecules
  • Forms the structure of some plants
  • Indigestible by humans but digestible by some other animals.
  • Valuable in human diet as source of dietary fibre, which used to be known as "roughage"

4. Pectin

  • Present in the roots and/or fruits of certain plants e.g. types of plums and apples
  • Pectin forms a gel in water and has uses for setting jam and making various sweet foods.
  • Sometimes used as a vegan alternative to gelatin (also known as gelatine) in the preparation of 'set' or glazed foods because the beef (cow) or pork (pig) origin of gelatin is not acceptable to some people as an ingredient in food.
  • Pectin forms a complex polysaccharide

5. Glycogen

  • The stored form of glucose (glucose is a monosaccharide - see above) present in animals including humans.
  • Energy store within the body, stored within muscles and the liver and brain
  • Humans store sufficient glycogen for 24 hours

In terms of their chemical composition and properties, non-starch polysaccharides are:

compounds that can be classified within the categories of the above table except for (i.e. excluding) starches.

For comparison:

Starch is the most common carbohydrate in the human diet. It is one type of polysaccharide. There are many different starches. Their sizes and shapes are characteristic of the plant that produced them, e.g. potatoes, bananas, beans (e.g. lentils, peas and chickpeas), barley, breadfruit, oats, oca, chestnuts, water chestnuts, wheat, yams, corn (maize) and rice. In all cases pure starch is a white, tasteless and odourless powder that is insoluble in cold water or alcohol. Starch is not readily digested by humans but it is more easily digested after it has been cooked in the presence of water e.g. in bread, pancakes, noodles, pasta and porridge.

Glycogen has a similar composition to that of starch. An important difference is that it is made (from glucose) by animals rather than by plants. Although small amounts of glycogen are stored in the body as an energy reserve it is insignificant in terms of humans dietary intake because glycogen stored in animal tissue breaks back down to glucose after an animal's physical death.

Non-starch polysaccharides therefore include cellulose (which forms the bulky structure of many plants) and pectins (which come from e.g. the stones of many fruits).

Examples of non-starch polysaccharides:

This list of compounds classed as non-starch polysaccarides (NSP)s is not complete but includes examples of common NSPs.

  • alginates
  • arabinoxylans
  • beta-glucans
  • cellulose
  • chitins
  • gellan
  • guar
  • inulin
  • lignin
  • pectin
  • xanthan

and some other carbohydrates with β-glycosidic linkages.

Some sources also include certain oligosaccharides as 'types of non-starch polysaccharides'. That is not unreasonable because oligosaccharides consist of molecules whose structure is more than two monosaccharide molecules joined together. However, oligosaccharides are increasingly classified separately from polysaccharides so their inclusion in lists of 'examples of NSPs' might cause confusion.

See also dietary fibre, carbohydrates, fatty acids, fats, proteins and water in the diet.

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