Abstract A total of 115 samples representing 38 different feedstuffs was analysed for carbohydrates and lignin. The samples were analysed for low-molecular weight (LMW) sugars by high-performance liquid chromatography, starch, fructan and mixed linked β(1 → 3;1 → 4)-D-glucan by colorimetry, total, soluble and insoluble non-starch polysaccharides (NSP) by gas-liquid chromatography and lignin by gravimetry. For all but alfalfa meal, almost quantitative recovery of carbohydrates and lignin was obtained with a deviation between calculated and analysed values of less than 2 g kg −1 dry matter. The correlation between calculated and analysed values was 0.985 ( P < 0.0001). The concentration (g kg −1 dry matter) of LMW-sugars varied from 5 g kg −1 and up to 137 g kg −1 with the lowest values found in cereal substitutes, whole grain cereals and by-products while the protein concentrates in general had the highest content of LMW-sugars (57–137 g kg −1). Starch was the main polysaccharide in whole grain cereals where it varied from 468 g kg −1 in oats to 690 g kg −1 in maize, in cereal by-products (93–902 g kg −1) and in tapioca (768 g kg −1). In contrast, the concentration of starch was low in all protein concentrates but peas and faba beans. The lowest levels of NSP and lignin were found in maize flour (NSP, 21 g kg −1; lignin, 4 g kg −1) and the highest levels in oat hull meal (NSP, 503 g kg −1; lignin, 148 g kg −1). There was also a significant variation in NSP and lignin in protein concentrates with the NSP value varying from 189 g kg −1 in faba beans to 451 g kg −1 in white lupins and with lignin varying from 12 g kg −1 in white lupins to 133 g kg −1 in sunflower cake. Grass meal, alfalfa meal and sugar beet fibre had in general high concentrations of NSP and lignin with values in grass and alfalfa meals of NSP: 329–426 g kg −1 and lignin: 128–169 g kg −1 and in sugar beet fibre 779 g kg −1 and 35 g kg −1, respectively.