Although it is well known that the intestinal tract has a high metabolic rate, the substrates that are used to generate the necessary energy remain poorly established, especially in fed animals. Under fed conditions, the quantification of substrate used by the gut is complicated by the fact that potential oxidative precursors are supplied from both the diet and the arterial circulation. To circumvent this problem, and to approach the question of the compounds used to generate ATP in the gut, we combined measurements of portal nutrient balance with enteral and intravenous infusions of [U-(13)C]substrates. We studied rapidly growing piglets that were consuming diets based on whole-milk proteins. The results revealed that 95% of the dietary glutamate presented to the mucosa was metabolized in first pass and that of this, 50% was metabolized to CO(2). Dietary glucose was oxidized to a very limited extent, and arterial glutamine supplied no >15% of the CO(2) production by the portal-drained viscera. Glutamate was the single largest contributor to intestinal energy generation. The results also suggested that dietary glutamate appeared to be a specific precursor for the biosynthesis of glutathione, arginine and proline by the small intestinal mucosa. These studies imply that dietary glutamate has an important functional role in the gut. Furthermore, these functions are apparently different from those of arterial glutamine, the substrate that has received the most attention.