There is now substantial evidence that some dietary polysaccharides, notably dietary fiber, escape absorption in the small bowel and are then broken down in the large intestine of man. The main end products of this colonic digestive process, which is anerobic, are short chain fatty acids (SCFA), and acetic, propionic, and butyric acids. Although these acids are known to be absorbed from the colon, their subsequent fate and significance is unknown. We have measured venous blood SCFA levels in healthy subjects after a 16-h fast, and then following oral doses of either 50 mmol SCFA, 5, 10, or 20 g doses of the fermentable carbohydrate lactulose, or 20 g of pectin. Fasting venous blood acetate was 53.8 +/- 4.4 mumol/liter (SEM) (n = 14). Fasting arterial blood acetate, taken simultaneously with venous blood in six subjects, was higher; 125.6 +/- 13.5 mumol/liter (arterial) vs. 61.1 +/- 6.9 mumol/liter (venous). Significant levels of propionate or butyrate were not detected in any blood samples. Following an oral dose of 50 mmol mixed SCFA, venous blood acetate reached a peak of 194.1 +/- 57.9 mumol/liter at 45 min and returned to fasting levels at 2 h. Blood acetate also rose in response to lactulose, peak levels occurring 2-4 h after the dose: 5 g, 98.6 +/- 23.1 mumol/liter; 10 g, 127.3 +/- 18.2 mumol/liter; and 20 g, 181.3 +/- 23.9 mumol/liter. Pectin fermentation was much slower, with blood acetate levels starting to rise after 6 h and remaining elevated at about twice fasting levels for the subsequent 18 h. However, areas under the blood acetate curves were closely related (r = 0.97; n = 5), whatever the source of acetate. These studies show that the large intestine makes an important contribution to blood acetate levels in man and that fermentation may influence metabolic processes well beyond the wall of this organ.