If you're an avid reader of nutritional food labels then you might have noticed this common ingredient found in a lot of packaged foods: Maltodextrin. This is one ingredient that you definitely want to know more about because of all the conflicting information surrounding it. Many people claim that it's harmful and you should completely stay away from it... On one hand, it's deemed to be safe to consume and can even provide our body with certain health benefits. On the other hand, it can also make your body have unwanted, unhealthy reactions.
It all comes down to understanding what maltodextrin is and how the amount we consume impacts our bodies, specifically our immune and digestive system. So keep on reading to learn about what this ingredient is, why it's used in so many foods, and whether it's safe to consume or not. Let's get started..
What is maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is a food additive that is processed from natural food sources like corn, potato, rice, tapioca, and wheat. Although it comes from natural food sources, it undergoes heavy processing that converts it into a white powder that dissolves in water and is almost tasteless.
This final form of maltodextrin is what is used as a food additive to help...
- Improve the texture of foods.
- Thicken foods and liquids in order to bind ingredients together.
- Increase the shelf life of foods.
- Replace sugar or fat in low-calorie processed foods.
Maltodextrin has little to no nutritional value, but there are two types of it that affect our bodies in different ways. Both are extracted from the same starches and go through the same initial treatment with enzymes or safe acids. Except one goes through another step that changes the bonds between sugar molecules which changes the regular white powder maltodextrin that is used as a thickener agent to a resistant maltodextrin. So regular maltodextrin is easily digestible, and resistance maltodextrin resists digestion. The most common form of maltodextrin is the one you see on various processed food labels, and it's also the type we'll be focusing on.
Common foods that contain maltodextrin
Although maltodextrin has little to no nutritional value, it is easily digestible and gives you an energy boost which is why you may have seen it on the ingredients list of some energy and sports drinks (It can also be listed under the name of molasses or dextrin maltose.). Aside from that it's most commonly used as a food thickener and a replacement for sugar. Here are a few of the most common foods with it...
- Baked goods
- Salad dressings
- Frozen meals
- Meat substitutes
- Diet or sugar free, low-calorie processed foods
Is maltodextrin safe?
You might be wondering, if this ingredient is almost in every food then it must be safe to eat, right? Well, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) it is. They recognize it as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) food additive.
However, it depends on the amount being consumed on a daily basis. Since generally maltodextrin is found in highly processed foods, a person consuming it is likely to have a diet high in sugar, low in fiber, and more processed than natural foods. As you know a diet high in fat, sugar, and processed foods can lead to weight gain and even increase the risk of high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.
Aside from that here are some other possible health risks of consuming too much maltodextrin...
- Blood sugar spikes
The biggest danger with maltodextrin is that it isn’t technically a sugar, but as soon as it’s digested it makes your blood sugar levels skyrocket. That's because it has a higher glycemic index (GI) than table sugar does. Maltodextrin can start a chain reaction that ends in you storing more fat, craving more sweets, and having sugar crashes all of the time. Now for most of you this will cause you to start gaining belly fat and turn your goals into fantasies, but if you’re diabetic this becomes the least of your worries. If you have diabetes, it could push your blood-sugar levels dangerously high and even push you into hyperglycemia and a sea of other problems. All of this from eating foods that are labeled “sugar free.”
- Affects gut bacteria
For those that don't know, your gut plays a very important role in your health. Recent research suggests that maltodextrin can suppress the growth of beneficial probiotics thus changing the composition of your gut bacteria. Specifically, a research conducted at Lerner Research Institute in Ohio found that polysaccharides like maltodextrin have been linked to bacteria-associated intestinal disorders like Crohn's disease.  There are several more studies that provide similar results, maltodextrin being linked to compromising good bacteria found in the gut and leading to inflammation or intestinal issues. It's important to know there could also be other outside factors (diet, lifestyle) that play a role into why this occurs.
- Commonly made from Genetically Modified Corn
A common source of maltodextrin is Genetically Modified corn. Although The World Health Organization (WHO) claims that GMOs are safe to consume, they are still harmful to the environment and people's health because of the heavy use of herbicides and pesticides on them. There is a small chance that those materials can get into wildlife or into the body through the diet consumed.
Many people believe that GMOs are linked to various health conditions, allergies, and even reproductive issues. There is little to no research on GMOs so the evidence on this is slim, but it is important to be aware that a good portion of maltodextrin comes from Genetically Modified corn.
- Can cause allergic reaction or intolerances
It's not uncommon for food additives, like maltodextrin, to trigger certain allergic reactions in the body. Side effects typically include gas, bloating, and even diarrhea in severe cases. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology noted that high consumption of maltodextrin can cause gastrointestinal symptoms like the ones listed earlier.
Another reason as to why maltodextrin might cause certain reactions in the body is because it is sometimes made with wheat. The production process says it completely removes gluten from the wheat, but there may still be traces of gluten in the final product. This can be dangerous and cause a reaction for people suffering from gluten intolerances and celiac disease. So if you do suffer from either of those, be very wary of products with maltodextrin listed in the ingredients.
So why does anyone use Maltodextrin in the first place?
While there are hundreds of reasons why to avoid foods with maltodextrin, I’m not going to lie to you and say that it does nothing good. Many athletes take supplements with maltodextrin in it because of its ability to be digested quickly and be used as a rapid source of energy. One study even shows that it helps to quickly replenish your stores of glycogen. Making it effective for recovering after or between workouts.  Those who have trouble gaining weight or muscle even use products (mass gainers) that specifically use maltodextrin in it. Another reason why companies use maltodextrin is due to the fact that it's really cheap and works effectively at improving the texture, taste, and shelf life of foods.
Alternatives to maltodextrin
The good still outweighs the bad, so just be mindful about the amount you consume. If you want to avoid or limit the amount of consumption of this additive then simply limit the amount of processed foods in your diet. If you don't already, look at the ingredients label when shopping to make sure it's not listed.
Here are a few healthier alternatives that are used in products and that you can even use at home when cooking or baking...
- Guar gum - Made from guar beans and works as a low-calorie binding agent.
- Pectin - A thickening agent that comes from a variety of fruits and vegetables.
- Tapioca starch - A gluten-free thickening agent extracted from the cassava root.
- Sugar alcohols - Sugar alcohols like erythritol or sorbitol are used to sweeten and thicken food. It contains between one half and two thirds the calories of sugar, but be careful, they can still raise blood sugar. Those with certain sensitivities might even experience some stomach discomfort or bloating.
- Stevia - Similar to sugar alcohols, this nearly calorie-free sweetener is made from the leaves of a plant in the aster family.
With all of this said…
You need to know that there are SO MANY foods that now have maltodextrin in them as a sugar free texture ingredient, which makes it nearly impossible to avoid completely. Luckily researchers are saying that minimal amounts of maltodextrin are harmless. It’s only when we begin to take in larger amounts that we start to see negative effects like insulin spikes, gut issues, fat gain, and cravings. To make sure you don’t have too much in your diet you can replace any maltodextrin with any of the ingredients listed above or even natural sweeteners like honey or agave syrup, and that should cut your maltodextrin to reasonable levels. Other than that, always try to minimize the amount of processed foods you eat (for reasons beyond just maltodextrin) and prioritize whole foods. This will keep your body healthy and functioning properly, so you can continue working out and hitting your fitness goals 😉