Medical News Today: What is maltodextrin and is it safe?

Maltodextrin is a white, starchy powder that manufacturers add into many foods to improve their flavor, thickness, or shelf life.

Maltodextrin is a common ingredient in packaged foods, such as pastries, candies, and soft drinks. When it is present, it will usually feature on the food label. Athletes may also use maltodextrin as a carbohydrate supplement.

Many people believe that maltodextrin is harmful to health. But how much truth is there to these claims?

Read on to learn about the benefits and dangers of maltodextrin and which foods contain this ingredient.

What is maltodextrin?

Maltodextrin on blue background poured out of measuring spoon.
Maltodextrin is a food additive.

Maltodextrin is a white powder that is relatively tasteless and dissolves in water. It is an additive in a wide range of foods, as it can improve their texture, flavor, and shelf life.

It is possible to make maltodextrin from any starchy food, including corn, potato, wheat, tapioca, or rice. Although the powder comes from these natural products, it then undergoes processing.

To make maltodextrin, manufacturers put starch through a process called hydrolysis. Hydrolysis uses water, enzymes, and acids to break the starch into smaller pieces, resulting in a white powder consisting of sugar molecules.

People with celiac disease should be aware that maltodextrin can contain traces of gluten when wheat is the source of the starch. However, according to the Beyond Celiac charity, maltodextrin is gluten-free as long as the ingredients list does not include the word wheat.

In edible products, this powder can help by:

  • thickening foods or liquids to help bind the ingredients together
  • improving texture or flavor
  • helping to preserve foods and increase their shelf life
  • replacing sugar or fat in low-calorie, processed foods

Maltodextrin has no nutritional value. However, it is a very easy-to-digest carbohydrate and can provide energy rapidly. Due to this, manufacturers add this powder to many sports drinks and snacks.


Which foods contain maltodextrin?

salad dressing on lettuce
Some salad dressings may contain maltodextrin.

Many people eat maltodextrin every day without realizing. Foods that often contain maltodextrin include:

  • pasta, cooked cereals, and rice
  • meat substitutes
  • baked goods
  • salad dressings
  • frozen meals
  • soups
  • sugars and sweets
  • energy and sports drinks

Some manufacturers also add maltodextrin to lotions, hair-care products, and livestock feed.

Is maltodextrin safe?

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), maltodextrin is a GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) food additive.

However, if a person eats too many products that contain maltodextrin, their diet is likely to be high in sugar, low in fiber, and full of highly processed foods. This type of diet can increase a person’s risk of high cholesterol, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes.

Research has also linked maltodextrin with possible health risks. These include the following:

Maltodextrin and diabetes

Maltodextrin has an even higher glycemic index (GI) than table sugar. This means that maltodextrin can cause a sharp increase, or spike, in people’s blood sugar shortly after they eat foods that contain it.

A spike in blood glucose can be particularly dangerous for people with diabetes or insulin resistance.

A high GI means that the sugars in these foods will quickly enter the bloodstream, where the body will absorb them. In contrast, complex carbohydrates, which include beans and whole-wheat pasta, are more healthful because the body absorbs them slowly. This makes people feel full for a more extended period.

Affects gut bacteria

Evidence suggests that maltodextrin may affect the balance of gut bacteria, which play an important role in people’s health.

Although studies in humans are necessary to confirm this, initial research on mice suggests that people who consume maltodextrin may have a reduced number of good bacteria and an increased quantity of harmful bacteria. This could potentially lead to intestine damage and a higher risk of inflammatory bowel diseases.

One study has shown that maltodextrin increases the activity of Escherichia coli bacteria, which may have a role in the development of the inflammatory bowel disease known as Crohn’s disease.

Another study has linked maltodextrin to the survival of Salmonella bacteria, which may cause gastroenteritis and a broad range of chronic inflammatory conditions.

A recent study suggested that maltodextrin may also compromise the ability of cells to respond to bacteria. It could also suppress intestine defense mechanisms against them, leading to intestinal disorders.

Allergies or intolerances

Many food additives can cause allergies or intolerances. Side effects may include allergic reactions, weight gain, gas, flatulence, and bloating.

Maltodextrin may also cause a rash or skin irritation, asthma, cramping, or difficulty breathing.

The primary sources of maltodextrin will be corn, rice, and potato, but manufacturers may sometimes use wheat. People with celiac disease or gluten intolerance should be aware that, although the production process will remove most of the protein components, maltodextrin derived from wheat may still contain some gluten.

Genetically modified (GM) ingredients

GM corn, which is a genetically modified organism (GMO), is a common source of maltodextrin.

The World Health Organization (WHO) state that GMOs are safe to consume.

However, GMOs may be harmful to the environment or people’s health because of the increased use of herbicides and pesticides on GMO crops. There is also a chance that the genetically modified material can get into wild plants and animals, or into the human body through the diet.

Many people believe that there is a link between GMOs and various health conditions, including cancer, kidney problems, Alzheimer’s disease, antibiotic resistance, allergies, and reproductive issues.

There is little evidence that this is true, though some believe that the lack of evidence could be partly due to the censorship of GMO research. The Environmental Sciences Europe journal published an article in support of this theory.


Benefits of maltodextrin

Maltodextrin is a cheap and effective food product that can improve the texture, taste, and shelf life of foods.

Many athletes and people who want to gain muscle or body weight use products containing maltodextrin as it is a rapid source of energy.

Alternatives to maltodextrin

Tapioca starch is an alternative to maltodextrin.
Tapioca starch is an alternative to maltodextrin.

People who are concerned about their maltodextrin intake may wish to choose alternative foods that provide healthful nutrients. This can help people to avoid blood glucose spikes.

Other food additives that thicken or stabilize foods include guar binding gum and pectin, which is a carbohydrate that manufacturers extract from fruits, vegetables, and seeds. Manufacturers may also use tapioca starch and arrowroot starch as thickeners.

People should also look out for flavoring alternatives to maltodextrin on product labels. These include sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol and erythritol, and sweeteners, such as stevia.

Sugar alcohols have fewer calories than maltodextrin and a lower impact on blood sugar levels. However, some people may find that they cause bloating and flatulence.

Stevia has no calories and little effect on blood sugar levels. However, some products include a blend of stevia and either maltodextrin or dextrose, and this blend can affect blood sugar levels.


Summary

People use maltodextrin as an artificial food additive or a carbohydrate supplement to boost energy levels and performance.

Experts consider it to be safe for the majority of people, although it may also carry some risks, particularly for people with diabetes. People may prefer to choose products that use alternative food additives, such as pectin.

Eating too many processed foods with additives can cause health problems. Instead, it is best to aim for a more healthful diet of whole-grains and vegetables to boost gut, brain, and heart health.

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