You may not know what maltodextrin is, but chances are you’ve eaten it many times. In fact, if you’re anything like the average American, you’ve probably had maltodextrin at least twice, just today. This super common ingredient in processed foods has been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use for several decades. Yet some sources now claim it’s nothing more than a harmful food additive. But is it really dangerous? Let’s find out.
What Is Maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is a polysaccharide that’s created from natural sources, like corn, rice, wheat, and potato starch, and used as a filler, thickener, texturizer, and shelf life extender. Through a production process called partial hydrolysis, plant starches are first cooked and then further broken down using heat-stable enzymes or acids.
The process results in a white powder that’s usually flavorless but may be slightly sweet, depending on the length of its glucose chains. Maltodextrin is classified based on its dextrose equivalent, or DE, which is expressed using a rating scale that runs from 3 to 20. The higher the value, the shorter the length of the glucose chains and the sweeter and more soluble the maltodextrin.
Maltodextrin is related to another common ingredient in processed foods called corn syrup solids, which are also made using hydrolysis. However, corn syrup solids are created using full hydrolysis, so they contain more than 20% sugar, whereas partial hydrolysis leaves maltodextrin with a sugar content of less than 20%.
Potential Dangers of Maltodextrin
When we’re talking about maltodextrin, it’s important to make the distinction between regular maltodextrin and digestion-resistant maltodextrin, which is a type of dietary fiber. While digestion-resistant maltodextrin is produced in a similar manner, it’s actually been shown in some studies to have potential health benefits.
Regular maltodextrin, however, is a completely different story.
Blood Sugar Spikes
Maltodextrin isn’t as sweet as natural sugars like fructose or sucrose, but it still contains the same amount of calories as an equivalent amount of sugar. In fact, even though its number of glucose chains means maltodextrin is considered a complex carbohydrate, it has a glycemic index that’s approximately twice as high as table sugar!
Its high glycemic index also means maltodextrin travels quickly through the digestive system and into the bloodstream, where it causes a rapid rise (and subsequent fall) in blood sugar levels. Contrast this with low glycemic foods like broccoli, which are digested slowly, thus leading to a slower rise and a more sustained blood glucose level.
Because of its high glycemic index, maltodextrin is often used by bodybuilders and endurance athletes as a quick source of energy. However, because maltodextrin is cheap to produce and highly versatile, it’s added to a wide variety of processed foods, from gravies, soups, and salad dressings to sodas, sports drinks, and sugar-free sweeteners—even natural sweeteners like stevia.
In other words, if you’re buying something that’s been processed, it probably contains maltodextrin.
So for those of us who aren’t into a lot of strenuous exercise, eating too much maltodextrin can be as harmful as eating too much table sugar. It may even make us more prone to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Genetic Modified Organisms
Most of the maltodextrin in the United States is made from corn, approximately 90% of which is genetically modified.
Why is this important?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are created in a lab by splicing together the DNA of unrelated species to achieve desired traits, such as the ability to withstand increased spraying of herbicides or the ability to grow human organs for later harvest.
Aside from ethical considerations or concerns surrounding exposure to higher levels of chemicals, because these genetically engineered “transgenic” species could never occur in nature, the domino effect on an organism’s genome and the resulting danger that may pose to humans or the world at large remain unknown.
In addition, independent long-term safety studies are currently lacking, though animal studies have shown possible health risks associated with the consumption of GMO crops, including organ damage, allergic reactions, and disruptions in gut bacteria.
Celiac Disease Risk
Unlike the United States, Europe produces most of its maltodextrin from wheat. While that may seem like the safer option, it may be a matter of concern for individuals suffering from celiac disease.
Still, the amount of maltodextrin in food is quite small, and the level of gluten that may be present is considered so negligible that the FDA is considering allowing foods that contain less than 20 parts per million to be labeled gluten-free.
But, until then, maltodextrin can be avoided by looking for “wheat” on the food label (though foods regulated by the USDA don’t require this addition) or by avoiding foods that contain maltodextrin altogether.
Gut Bacteria Imbalance
One of the greatest dangers posed by maltodextrin may be its effect on gut health. For example, a study published in the journal PLoS One found that maltodextrin contributes to the suppression of the gut’s antimicrobial defense mechanisms, which in turn promotes the growth of pathogenic bacteria, including Salmonella. These findings led researchers to conclude that consumption of processed foods containing maltodextrin may contribute to the development of chronic inflammatory diseases.
In addition, an earlier study published in the same journal noted that the increased consumption of polysaccharides like maltodextrin has paralleled the rise in cases of Crohn’s disease. What’s more, researchers found that maltodextrin specifically enhances the adhesion of Escherichia coli (E. coli) and the formation of biofilms—thick layers of bacteria protected by a coating of lipids, proteins, polysaccharides, and nucleic acids. And, similar to the previous study, researchers concluded that this disruption in the gut microbiome may play a role in susceptibility to disease.
Another study published in the journal Gut Microbes also connected maltodextrin to impaired antimicrobial defense mechanisms, leading researchers to hypothesize that food additives, including maltodextrin, are, in fact, “potentiators of disease.”
And a review in the journal Cellular and Molecular Gastroenterology and Hepatology concluded that the consumption of maltodextrin may be a risk factor for individuals prone to inflammatory bowel disease and may play a role in promoting chronic low-grade intestinal inflammation and metabolic abnormalities in the general population.
But perhaps the biggest danger associated with the use of maltodextrin has more to do with the foods it’s in than the polysaccharide itself—because consuming a diet high in maltodextrin means you’re also eating too many high-fat, high-sugar, low-fiber, low-nutrient foods. And a diet with little nutritional value is linked to weight gain, elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and chronic diseases, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
In spite of all these concerns, the FDA lists maltodextrin as generally recognized as safe, or GRAS. While it may indeed be safe in small amounts, the studies would seem to indicate that a degree of caution should be exercised when deciding whether to consume this food additive. Even so, the foods maltodextrin is naturally found in carry their own risks, so the wiser course may be to just avoid processed foods altogether.
Of course, while eating a whole foods diet is certainly the ideal, there’s no denying that processed foods are ubiquitous in the Western diet. So, if eliminating processed foods completely isn’t possible, try looking for foods that contain healthier alternatives to maltodextrin, including:
- Guar gum
- Tapioca starch
It’s also important to note that maltodextrin can lead to side effects in some people, including bloating, cramping, and diarrhea, so if you experience these symptoms after consuming foods that contain maltodextrin, it might be wise to listen to your body and find other alternatives.