Maltodextrin is a food additive that you’ve likely consumed or come across before without even realizing it. If you read the ingredient list of your cereal, pasta, frozen meals, or sports drinks, you may find maltodextrin hidden somewhere in the text.
Originally derived from corn, rice, potatoes, or wheat, this starch blend is made by heating the starch in water, causing the granules to swell and burst open, turning it into a gel. This gel contains glucose polymers (chains of sugars), and can now be used in the foods we eat, with snack foods and high-carbohydrate foods being the most likely final destination of maltodextrin.
Contrary to popular diet restriction rules, carbohydrates are not the enemy and should make up 55-75% of our total energy intake, according to the WHO. They provide the energy we need to heat our body, move, and function, and keep our organs and body systems running.
Starchy foods, like the origins of maltodextrin, are very high in fast-acting carbohydrates (sugars) and can provide high levels of long-lasting energy for an activity such as intense exercise or periods of time when food sources may not be available. However, you can have too much of a good thing, and that includes fast-release sugars like glucose and fructose. These can make your blood sugar levels rise too quickly, and lead to long-term health complications. Maltodextrin can be used to replace these fast-release sugars in snack foods and has been shown to be safe for consumption with no significant health risks by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
One of the most attractive qualities of maltodextrin is how versatile it can be as an additive. It can make foods creamy without added fat (like mayonnaise and dressings), and sweeter as in the case of icings, coffee whitener, or sports drinks. It has also been used to stabilize soft drinks, increase the viscosity of canned goods (making them thicker), make the batter for fried foods crispier without added fat, and even as a lower-calorie supplement to baked treats, so they aren’t as laden with sugars as they normally would be.
The lower fat content is also beneficial for those with (or at high risk for) cardiovascular disease. In addition, maltodextrin mimics fat extraordinarily well, in terms of viscosity, firmness, and taste. Maltodextrin has even been found to dampen appetites without sacrificing taste or satisfaction when taken orally prior to eating a full meal. And, because it can also be made from potatoes or corn, these products are safe to eat for gluten-free or celiac individuals, so long as the maltodextrin did not originate from wheat. With all of these wonderful and versatile uses, it shouldn’t be surprising that this dietary discovery has taken the snack industry by storm.
Maltodextrin’s Efficacy on Exercise
What has physiologists and coaches interested, is the ability of maltodextrin to replenish sugars lost during exercise. This enables athletes and bodybuilders to increase their endurance, reduce central fatigue, and boost their recovery post-activity. High glycemic index (GI) foods are those that give us the fastest as they are burned and used by our bodies. When we consume foods, the sugars in them are extracted and raise our blood sugar level at different rates. Athletes who are about to train, run a marathon, or have a workout session must ensure they consume enough high GI foods that they have the energy they are about to burn quickly available, in addition to long-term low GI foods that will ensure speedy recovery and endurance. For example, high GI foods include cornmeal, pasta, and bread, while examples of low GI foods are fruits, prunes, yams, and beans.
Pre-exercise carbohydrates (high GI) are essential for good performance, resulting in elevated blood sugar levels quickly after consumption, although professional opinions differ as to the effect of this on final performance. That said, studies have shown that a blend of fructose and maltodextrin ingested during or after exercise can enhance endurance capacity in future training sessions.
In comparison to participants who took only fructose after exercising, the addition of maltodextrin resulted in better future performance. This is thought to be because of a boost of plasma lactate concentrations when a combination treatment was given, in addition to maltodextrins’ hepatic effects, which have been found in previous studies, but researchers remain unclear as to why or how these effects occur. However, on the topic of pre- and post-exercise effects of maltodextrin, another experiment involving giving glutamine and maltodextrin together found that this combination also increased the power of muscles during repeated competitions and exercises.
Between these two experiments, it seems maltodextrin in combination with other sugars can increase delayed physical strength and endurance, compared to taking only the sugar compounds.
Clinical Research on Maltodextrin
A non-food application of Maltodextrin can be found in the pharmaceutical industry. This compound disintegrates extremely quickly, particularly when moistened or heated, making it ideal for pharmaceutical preparations. Because the maltodextrin coating quickly dissolves, this tablet would need no chewing or water to take, making it easier to administrate, particularly to children or the elderly.
Research performed on the applicability of this idea found that the tablets were uniform, firm, and dissolved well into fine, easily swallowed particles. If you think back to the last time you had to take a pill, this is sounding like a fantastic alternative to swallowing large, hard pills or swallowing bitter powder, isn’t it?
Maltodextrin has also been helpful to physicians treating diarrhea. A bulletin by the World Health Organization showed that using maltodextrin in a rehydration solution in patients with acute diarrhea rehydrated them better than using glucose or other sugars alone. It turns out, rather like increasing the power and endurance of athletes when taken with other sugars, maltodextrin can also rehydrate people faster when used in a rehydration formula given to dehydrated patients. This suggests a range of applications from rehydration IVs to drinkable rehydration aids that can be used in a rehabilitation or hospital setting, though research into these applications is ongoing.
However, as with any nutrient or food, there are downsides to maltodextrin that have been found through clinical research and testing. The predominant problem is the effect of the high GI of maltodextrin (remember it comes from purified, water-soaked starches, which are high in carbohydrates), which can be problematic for those with conditions such as diabetes.
Diabetics who face insulin resistance (Type II) or must administer external insulin (Type I or II) find high-GI foods difficult to tolerate because of the delay in insulin required to bring their rising blood sugar level down15. For these individuals, consulting a health care professional prior to consuming maltodextrin in large amounts may be necessary.
There also have been complications found in diabetic patients with high carbohydrate diets, which can be related to maltodextrin intake, as this is considered a high-carbohydrate or high-GI food2.
Maltodextrin on Your Gut
Some research has also found maltodextrin intake can deregulate anti-microbial defense mechanisms that would normally fight off foreign bugs in our intestinal tract16. This is particularly interesting because Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome and inflammatory, chronic conditions are on the rise. Maltodextrin was found to impair intestinal defense mechanisms and cellular anti-bacterial responses, though why this occurs remains a mystery16.
Another inflammatory bowel disease that is also currently on the rise is Crohn’s disease. This condition, like inflammatory bowel disease, is associated with intestinal dysregulation of the bacteria that live in the gut, and a hallmark of the disease is thick bacterial biofilms (which are gooey masses produced by bacteria to protect them from our immune systems attacks) caused by bacteria such as E. coli.
A recent study involving patients with Crohn’s disease found that maltodextrin promotes biofilm production by E. coli, resulting in thicker biofilm production, higher bacterial counts, and worse infections in Crohn’s disease patients. This suggests that, like many carbohydrates, maltodextrin not only increases insulin levels in diabetics and healthy individuals because of its high GI but also alters our gut bacterial levels in ways we don’t fully understand yet.
Maltodextrin on Your Teeth
Another drawback to maltodextrin is that it is still a starch, and like all starches, it is not very good for your teeth. Demineralization of enamel and higher microorganism counts in the mouth have been seen in lab animals and humans with high maltodextrin diets, although it is difficult to conclude whether it was the maltodextrin alone, or high sugar, high-fat diet that typically goes along with high MD consumption that caused the dental problems2.
When lab animals were fed a high maltodextrin diet, they developed more cavities in their teeth than those eating a high glucose diet. While an equivalent study has not yet been performed in humans, it is interesting to note the difference between glucose, which is a pure sugar, and maltodextrin, which is a starch-derived sugar, on the teeth, and what this means for cavities and overall dental health.
Maltodexrin and GMO’s
Because Maltodextrin can be made from corn, many may argue it is high in Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), because corn is highly modified. Thus, in the anti-GMO movement, we are currently living in, maltodextrin derived from corn is not the ideal source of carbohydrates for people trying to avoid GMOs.
In addition, maltodextrin from any starch source is typically found in “junk foods” and snack foods. Because of this, a high intake of maltodextrin’s may not be part of an overall healthy diet (highly processed, and high in sugar/fat), and is not beneficial for trying to lose weight.
Because of this, and the GI of maltodextrin being high and thus spiking blood glucose levels more than other sources of carbohydrates (that have a lower GI, such as beans), it can also raise the risk of developing Type II Diabetes because of the foods it is found in and it’s overall high GI.
Maltodextrin: Friend or Foe?
After all of these pros and cons, the question remains whether maltodextrin is healthy or not. Your diet should always be diverse because we humans need many different macro and micronutrients to make our bodies run smoothly and keep our organs and systems healthy. While eating a diet high in processed foods laden with maltodextrin is not healthy, it can be part of a healthy diet.
A diet too restrictive in nature can lead to poor health – and diversity is the key to long-lasting, healthy bodies. maltodextrin, like sugars in general, can be part of your diet, but you should be keeping these levels low, comparative to those recommended for pure sugars in your country’s food guide, which are often available online.
For those managing conditions involving the gut such as Crohn’s Disease, Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome, or Type I or II Diabetes should take extra care when considering what portion of their diet should be made up of additives like maltodextrin, and potential complications it may cause.
Maltodextrin is something to avoid if you are trying to lose weight, primarily due to the foods it is found in. Consulting your health care professional and tailoring your dietary needs to your situation is the best way to avoid any negative effects from natural or synthetic additives and foods. In addition, your dentist can advise you on how to avoid any cavities from maltodextrin consumption, and good daily dental care such as tooth brushing and flossing can prevent these problems.
For individuals training professionally or regularly (even as a hobby), maltodextrin additions to your sports drinks and other foods may improve recovery and endurance. However, as with the above conditions, you should always consult a coach or health care professional if you have questions or concerns regarding how this addition can benefit you and your physical training potential. This way, you can enjoy the benefits of the ideal platform for you (whether this is high carbohydrate, high fructose, or high maltodextrin additions to your training diet), while maintaining your ideal physical health and avoiding side-effects.
The next time you buy a snack or drink, take a moment to read the ingredients list. You’ll be surprised just how many contain maltodextrin! But don’t be alarmed. The FDA has found moderate amounts of maltodextrin to be, on the whole, completely safe. Look at your Food Guide and see what the recommended levels of sugars in your diet are, and remember that maltodextrin should be counted as a sugar, rather than a carbohydrate. In small amounts, it isn’t the “bad guy”, however, moderation and diversity in your diet is the key to the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle.