You may not know what maltodextrin is, but chances are, you’ve already eaten it at least once in your lifetime. This artificially-produced white powder is an incredibly common food additive found in items ranging from muffins to salad dressings to sports drinks to improve their texture, flavor, and shelf-life.
What Is Maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is a practically tasteless white powder that dissolves easily into water and other liquids. It can be made from any starchy plant, such as corn, rice, potatoes, or wheat. Although it’s made from plants, it’s a very highly processed substance. Corn maltodextrin has a completely different nutritional profile from corn.
How Is Maltodextrin Made?
Manufacturers use a chemical process called partial hydrolysis to make maltodextrin. First they cook the starch to begin to break it down. Next, they add acids or enzymes such as heat-stable bacterial alpha-amylase to break it down even further. The end result of all this is the neutral-tasting, water-soluble powder we know as maltodextrin.
Like maltodextrin, closely-related corn syrup solids are made using hydrolysis. What distinguishes the two is that corn syrup solids are made up of at least 20% sugar, while maltodextrin is composed of less than 20% sugar.
Common Uses for Maltodextrin
Information provided by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) indicates that maltodextrin is typically added to foods to thicken them, prevent crystallization, and bind ingredients together. It also keeps processed foods fresh for longer and improves the mouthfeel of food and beverage products. Maltodextrin is sometimes added to low-fat foods to maintain pleasant textural and sensory elements typically related to fat content.
Maltodextrin is commonly found in the following food products:
- Nutrition bars
- Pasta, cooked cereals, and rice
- Meat substitutes
- Frozen meals
- Potato chips
- “Light” peanut butter
- Instant puddings
- Salad dressings
- Meal-replacement shakes
- Sugar-free sweeteners
Bodybuilders and other athletes sometimes use maltodextrin as a dietary supplement after hard workouts. Whether in the form of a powder, gel packet, or energy drink, maltodextrin can rapidly boost your glycogen and glucose levels. Ingesting a high-glycemic simple carbohydrate like maltodextrin raises blood sugar and insulin levels and sends carbohydrates directly to fatigued muscle cells.
Potential Dangers of Maltodextrin
Although the FDA lists maltodextrin as a GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) food additive, consuming a diet high in maltodextrin will likely mean eating too many high-sugar, low-fiber, overly processed foods. Such a diet has been linked to numerous negative health outcomes, including high cholesterol levels, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes.
Maltodextrin itself has also been linked to possible health risks. Here are the three major areas of concern.
1. Blood Sugar Levels
As we’ve mentioned, maltodextrin has quite a high glycemic index—between 106 and 136. Table sugar, for comparison, has a glycemic index of 65. This means ingesting maltodextrin can cause blood sugar spikes, which can be especially dangerous for people with diabetes or insulin resistance.
The simple carbohydrates in maltodextrin rapidly enter your bloodstream, and if you don’t have an immediate need for the energy they contain, they get stored as fat. Complex carbohydrates, which must first be broken down and are then absorbed slowly, can help you maintain energy levels over a longer period of time.
2. Gut Health
Research has shown that maltodextrin can adversely impact your overall gut health by stymying the growth of beneficial bacteria and encouraging the growth of harmful bacteria.
A study conducted by scientists at the Lerner Research Institute in Ohio and published in PLoS One links maltodextrin to “a broad range of chronic inflammatory diseases associated with intestinal dysbiosis.” The authors conclude that maltodextrin suppresses intestinal antimicrobial defense mechanisms, which promotes the survivals of salmonella, among other adverse outcomes.
An earlier study conducted by two of the same Lerner Research Institute scientists notes that the increased consumption of polysaccharides like maltodextrin parallels the increase in Crohn’s disease diagnoses. The scientists found that maltodextrin specifically enhances the adhesion of E. coli, which is thought to play a role in the progression of Crohn’s disease. They conclude that an increased intake of polysaccharides appears to promote gut dysbiosis and contribute to disease susceptibility.
Research carried out at the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center in Boston and published in Gut Microbes in 2015 also connected maltodextrin to impaired antimicrobial and antibacterial defense mechanisms. The research team determined that maltodextrin also has the potential to disrupt the homeostasis of your intestine and can contribute to and worsen inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
3. Adverse Reactions
There’s some evidence that maltodextrin consumption can disturb your digestive health in immediately noticeable ways. Findings published in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology in 2013 indicate that consuming maltodextrin can result in symptoms such as gurgling sounds, gas, and even diarrhea.
As you may recall, maltodextrin can be made from wheat, which raises a number of questions about maltodextrin and gluten. Manufacturers say that the production process completely removes gluten from the wheat. That would mean the answer to “Is maltodextrin gluten-free?” would be yes.
According to the advocacy group Beyond Celiac, foods containing maltodextrin can be considered gluten-free as long as the ingredients list and/or the “Contains” statement do not include the word “wheat.”
If you have celiac disease, a gluten allergy, or some other form of severe gluten intolerance, however, you may want to steer clear of products containing maltodextrin just to be safe.