In December 2016, a panel of experts in microbiology, nutrition and clinical research was convened by the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics to review the definition and scope of prebiotics. Consistent with the original embodiment of prebiotics, but aware of the latest scientific and clinical developments, the panel updated the definition of a prebiotic: a substrate that is selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit. This definition expands the concept of prebiotics to possibly include non-carbohydrate substances, applications to body sites other than the gastrointestinal tract, and diverse categories other than food. The requirement for selective microbiota-mediated mechanisms was retained. Beneficial health effects must be documented for a substance to be considered a prebiotic. The consensus definition applies also to prebiotics for use by animals, in which microbiota-focused strategies to maintain health and prevent disease is as relevant as for humans. Ultimately, the goal of this Consensus Statement is to engender appropriate use of the term 'prebiotic' by relevant stakeholders so that consistency and clarity can be achieved in research reports, product marketing and regulatory oversight of the category. To this end, we have reviewed several aspects of prebiotic science including its development, health benefits and legislation.