Maltodextrin is an additive and common ingredient in many processed foods. What is it, why is it in your food, and should you embrace it or avoid it? We have a comprehensive breakdown of maltodextrin so you can make your own decision.
What Is Maltodextrin? What Does It Do?
The food additive maltodextrin is a polysaccharide, a white powder derived from starches like wheat, corn, rice, tapioca, and potato starch. It's made via hydrolysis, a process that uses enzymes to break down the starch molecules into smaller short-chain sugars, after which it's purified, dried, and added to food products. Though it is made up of sugars, maltodextrin isn't sweet, and most consumers can't detect its taste at all.
So what's its purpose? Maltodextrin is a filler added to processed food for bulk and texture. Inexpensive, it often acts as a preservative and lengthens the shelf life of foods.
Here's a general list of products that may have "maltodextrin" listed on their food labels.
- Artificial sweeteners
- Sports drinks and beer
- Instant pudding
- Baby foods and infant formulas
- Mayonnaise, margarines, butters, sauces, and salad dressings
- Breakfast cereals and snack foods
- Dairy products
Maltodextrin is often used in sugar-free and low-calorie products, but is it healthy?
Is Maltodextrin Healthy?
Are there any health issues associated with maltodextrin? Here's who needs to be cautious with maltodextrin.
Diabetic and Pre-Diabetic Consumers
Maltodextrin is a complex carbohydrate that doesn't act like one. Unlike whole food complex carbs such as whole-grain rice, maltodextrin is a high glycemic index food, coming in at around 130. For comparison, table sugar is only a 65. That means maltodextrin hits the bloodstream quickly, raising blood sugar levels and possibly leading to dangerous insulin resistance.
People who are prediabetic or who have type 1 or type 2 diabetes may do well to avoid too much maltodextrin. By raising blood glucose so quickly as a carb, maltodextrin intake is best limited as much as possible.
Those with Gluten, Wheat, or Corn Allergies
Maltodextrin is gluten-free (even when it's made from wheat) and has a mere 4 calories per gram, but it adds no nutritional value to our food or drinks. All proteins are removed during processing, including gluten, but those with celiac disease may still need to avoid it if it comes from a wheat source.
That being said, celiac patients taking maltodextrin daily over a 24-week period reported no intestinal discomfort over the placebo group. If you're sensitive to gluten, proceed with caution, but also know that maltodextrin is largely safe in this arena.
Those with corn allergies should be completely safe, with maltodextrin posing no risk of an allergic reaction. Maltodextrin may have an impact on the profile of your gut bacteria, however, which could cause digestive system discomforts for other reasons unrelated to gluten or allergens. If you have a known allergy or malabsorption diseases like celiac or Crohn's disease, ask a health care professional or dietitian for advice on how to eliminate hidden allergens from your diet.
Impact on Athletes
Maltodextrin has been found to help fuel athletes who consume it in sports drinks, specifically by serving in the place of glycogen (stored sugar for muscle fuel). Glycogen stores are quickly depleted in endurance sports like running or cycling, and by reducing glycogen breakdown, maltodextrin can improve exercise performance, especially when consumed in combination with fructose.
By preserving glycogen reserves in the muscle, athletes and fitness enthusiasts can endure longer and experience less fatigue when their workouts are complete.
Is Maltodextrin a GMO Product? And What Is "Resistant Maltodextrin"
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that GMO corn is safe to consume, many people prefer to consume non-GMO foods until the food science data is more robust on the long-term effects of GMO foods on human health. Maltodextrin is often (but not always) made from corn that has been genetically modified, so take that into consideration before you buy.
"Resistant" maltodextrin is distinct from regular maltodextrin because it has gone through an extra chemical process to make it more indigestible to humans. This is important, as it turns regular maltodextrin into a prebiotic food that is indigestible to us but not to the good gut bacteria that stands on the frontline of our immune response against bacteria like E. coli. Plus, unlike regular maltodextrin which has a negative blood sugar impact, this indigestible type actually helps to lower blood triacylglycerol levels after a meal and improve the risk factors for metabolic syndrome.
Alternatives to Maltodextrin
Maltodextrin is a mixed bag: it's high on the glycemic index...sometimes, it's a GMO product...sometimes, it's safe for those with gluten allergies...sometimes. The FDA has it classified as a GRAS food additive, which stands for "generally recognized as safe," but maybe you'd rather avoid something so slippery that may or may not be a problem for weight gain, for type 2 diabetes, or for cholesterol levels, depending. What are some other options?
- Thickeners: For cooking at home, maltodextrin is used as a thickener, and can be replaced by pectin (a heteropolysaccharide found in plant cell walls) or guar gum (a polysaccharide from guar beans).
- Sweeteners: Natural sugar substitutes like stevia and erythritol can be used to make approximations of sweet, processed foods at home without detrimentally impacting your blood sugar levels (just make sure they're not mixed blends with maltodextrin or dextrose).
To avoid maltodextrin as a food additive, your best bet is to stick to whole foods over processed foods and to choose healthier ingredients for home cooking.
Scientific studies have shown that maltodextrin can provide benefits to athletes, and that resistant maltodextrin can improve blood sugar levels. However, it's also a GMO product that may or may not be appropriate for those with a wheat allergy depending on the severity of the sensitivity, and non-resistant maltodextrin has a higher GI score than table sugar does!
There's no easy definitive answer on maltodextrin's health impact, but if you want to avoid it, skip processed foods, and watch out for it on food labels as you instead consume a majority of decidedly healthy whole foods.