The role for adjuvants in human vaccines has been a matter of vigorous scientific debate, with the field hindered by the fact that for over 80 years, aluminum salts were the only adjuvants approved for human use. To this day, alum-based adjuvants, alone or combined with additional immune activators, remain the only adjuvants approved for use in the USA. This situation has not been helped by the fact that the mechanism of action of most adjuvants has been poorly understood. A relative lack of resources and funding for adjuvant development has only helped to maintain alum's relative monopoly. To seriously challenge alum's supremacy a new adjuvant has many major hurdles to overcome, not least being alum's simplicity, tolerability, safety record and minimal cost. Carbohydrate structures play critical roles in immune system function and carbohydrates also have the virtue of a strong safety and tolerability record. A number of carbohydrate compounds from plant, bacterial, yeast and synthetic sources have emerged as promising vaccine adjuvant candidates. Carbohydrates are readily biodegradable and therefore unlikely to cause problems of long-term tissue deposits seen with alum adjuvants. Above all, the Holy Grail of human adjuvant development is to identify a compound that combines potent vaccine enhancement with maximum tolerability and safety. This has proved to be a tough challenge for many adjuvant contenders. Nevertheless, carbohydrate-based compounds have many favorable properties that could place them in a unique position to challenge alum's monopoly over human vaccine usage.