1. Food webs are a powerful whole-system way to represent the patterns of biodiversity and energy flow in a readily quantifiable framework amenable to comparative analyses. Integrated theory and data on complex trophic interactions provide useful and novel ways to study ecosystem structure, dynamics, function and stability. 2. Freshwater ecology has contributed considerably to the advancement of food-web ecology. This has occurred through early application of methodological advances such as stable isotope analysis and description of some of the most detailed food webs, including Little Rock Lake and the Broadstone Stream food webs. 3. Freshwater food webs are often highly resolved, although the inclusion of components such as bacteria continues to be challenging. Characteristics of stream food webs appear to include high rates of omnivory and a strong role for body size as a structuring influence. 4. While freshwater ecology has often included landscape factors, food webs from freshwaters have most often been collected at small spatial scales. There is a need to take a landscape approach to the study of food-web dynamics in freshwater ecosystems. 5. Studies of food webs that take an experimental approach or utilise natural gradients remain rare but will be vital to untangling causative relationships between changing environmental conditions and food-web structure and dynamics. 6. Emerging directions in freshwater food-web research involve integrating individual-level variation and information on traits into food-web studies. This is allowing a growing understanding of the ways in which food webs can be used to integrate community, evolutionary and population processes into studies of biodiversity. 7. A Virtual Issue of Freshwater Biology entitled 'Advances in food-web research: a compendium of Freshwater Biology papers' brings together papers included in this review that have been published in the journal since 1985. The Virtual Issue can be located at ttp://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1365-2427/homepage/virtual_issue_advances_in_food-web_research.htm.