Next time you buy a bag of chips or candy, be sure to read the nutrition label. You will find a list of ingredients. In this list, you may also notice an ingredient called maltodextrin. You may wonder what is maltodextrin? It is a polysaccharide ( i.e., a polymer of glucose) which is commonly used in the processed food industry as a bulking agent to add bulk to food, preservative and as a sweetener.
This white looking hygroscopic powder is widely used in the beer brewing industry to improve the feel of the beer and head retention.
Although, there are some serious health concerns and side effects of maltodextrin such as high blood sugar, harmful to the gut, etc.
Maltodextrin is made from genetically modified corn, leading to allergies in people. However, there are several safer alternatives like stevia, maple syrup, coconut sugar, raw honey, etc. which can replace this dangerous thickener and preservative.
What is maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is a polysaccharide made from starch by hydrolysis, a process involving water and enzymes to break down starch. It can be sweet or tasteless depending on the degree of hydrolysis.
It is available as a white hygroscopic powder. It is composed of D-glucose units forming chains anywhere from 3-17 units long.
Maltodextrin is made most commonly from corn starch in the US. Maltodextrin has given rise to concerns in the health industry due to its high glycemic index.
Glycemic index is a measure of what the food does to your blood sugar levels after two hours of eating. A high Glycemic index means a higher spike in blood glucose levels.
This high glycemic index is of concern, especially to diabetics and prediabetics.
Why does the food industry use maltodextrin?
As we discussed before, maltodextrin is a food thickener. It also increases the shelf life of packaged foods. It has an additional advantage of acting as a binding agent. A binding agent is something that holds different ingredients together.
Because it is inexpensive, products such as instant puddings, sauces, and salad dressings contain it as a thickening agent. It is also used to sweeten products such as canned fruits, juices, and desserts.
It is commonly used in the manufacturing of potato chips, jerky, etc.
Maltodextrin dangers on health?
1) It can spike your blood sugar
Maltodextrin is quickly broken down and absorbed by the human body. It has a glycemic index of 85-135. In comparison, table sugar or sucrose has a glycemic index of 65.
This high glycemic index means that your blood sugar levels rise faster after consuming maltodextrin in comparison to table sugar.
A high glycemic index is of concern to diabetics and people predisposed to developing diabetes, who need to control their blood sugar levels, especially if consumed in large amounts.
Easily absorbed carbohydrates like maltodextrin tend to get stored as fat if your energy stores are full. This can lead to weight gain and obesity. So, if you are watching your weight, I would advise you to stay away from maltodextrin.
2) Harmful to friendly gut bacteria
Gut bacteria are necessary for a healthy bowel. They help to educate the immune system regarding who is harmful and who is not. They help prevent autoimmune diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease.
Maltodextrin shifts the pattern of your gut flora by making it more favorable for harmful bacteria. Researchers say the incidence of Crohn’s disease rises parallelly with the consumption of polysaccharides.
The findings of a 2012 study show maltodextrin suppress helpful bacteria and increase survival of harmful bacteria like E. Coli (helps it adhere to the intestinal wall) and S. Typhi. (1)
E. Coli is a bacterium which causes different types of diarrhea in children and adults. Typhi is the causative agent of typhoid fever. Reduced beneficial gut bacteria also increases the chances of getting inflammatory bowel disease and autoimmunity. (2)
3) A word of caution for gluten sensitive individuals
Cornstarch or wheat undergo extensive hydrolysis for making maltodextrin. Wheat contains gluten. It is popular opinion that the extensive processing required for maltodextrin synthesis strips it of all proteins including gluten, making it safe for people with gluten sensitivity. But still, there could be traces of gluten present in it.
The trace amounts can cause symptoms such as bloating in allergic individuals if consumed in large quantities. I would recommend gluten sensitive people stay away from consuming maltodextrin containing foods, especially in large amounts.
4) Made from GMO cornstarch
To cut costs, most manufacturers use GMO corn as raw material for manufacturing maltodextrin. The FDA has labeled GMO corn safe. But research links GMO foods to many diseases such as kidney damage, cancer, etc.
Statistics show 85% corn produced in the USA is GMO. This increases the chances of you consuming maltodextrin that is manufactured from GMO corn.
If you wish to avoid GMO food, go for foods that are labeled “organic” because, in the US, any food labeled organic has to be GMO-free.
5) Empty calories
Maltodextrin gives about four calories per gram, similar to the amount you get from table sugar. It has no other nutritive value apart from calories.
These calories are called “empty calories” as there is no nutritional benefit to the body. Natural foods provide vitamins a, minerals and other nutrients along with calories.
Hence, it is better to consume natural foods. For people who go gymming, I would recommend complex carbohydrates such as oats instead of simple sugars as they are digested more slowly and help maintain a constant basal energy level.
Are there any benefits?
However, all is not dark and gloomy with maltodextrin. For people and bodybuilders trying to gain weight, it is a source of quick calories. Our bodies run on glucose.
When you work out, the body uses up your glucose stores. Once the stored glucose runs out, your body starts using fats and proteins to provide energy.
Proteins are broken down to produce amino acids which can act as raw material for the synthesis of new glucose. This can lead to a reduction in your muscle mass.
The quick absorption of maltodextrin means that it can quickly replenish your calories post workout and prevent protein breakdown.
People suffering from chronic hypoglycemia take maltodextrin as part of their treatment. This is helpful as maltodextrin, being easy to absorb, helps restore blood glucose faster than regular sugar.
Fibersol-2 is a digestion resistant form of maltodextrin. It means that it stays in your gut and will not spike your blood sugar levels.
A study conducted using a formulation of maltodextrin called Fibersol-2 shows that it prevents colorectal cancer without any apparent side effects.
What are the safe alternatives to maltodextrin?
A zero calorie, all natural sweetener derived from the stevia plant. It is sweet to taste but is not digested by humans. Thus, stevia will not cause a rise in blood sugar levels. It used widely by health enthusiasts as a sweetener for tea. (3)
Different kinds of stevia are available in the market. Their nutritive value decreases as it goes through more and more processing. Among all the variants, the green leaf variant is the best as it is the least processed.
A carbohydrate found in plant products. Humans don’t have enzymes such as cellulases which are necessary to digest pectins. Being indigestible, pectins form part of dietary fiber or roughage, as some people call it.
Dietary fiber adds bulk to the food and makes food easier to digest and prevents constipation. Fruits such as pears, guavas, apples, plums are rich in pectins. It also binds to cholesterol in the gut and promotes its excretion. (4)
3) Raw honey
Raw honey is highly beneficial. Unprocessed honey is the best. Honey has additional benefits apart from tasting sweet. It is rich in antioxidants, improves sleep, wound healing, boosts the immune system and counters pollen allergies.
Research shows honey has antidiabetic effects. (5) It also provides an excellent energy source to replenish glycogen stores, especially after exercise. You can also go for manuka honey, which has amazing health benefits.
4) Guar gum
Guar gum is also called guaran. Guar gum is obtained from guar beans. Guar gum does not contain gluten and is highly economical.
Its thickening ability is almost eight times that of cornstarch. All these properties make it favorable for widespread use as a thickening agent, especially in the gluten-free food industry.
Guar gum slows down glucose absorption, reducing the spike in blood glucose levels following a meal. This effect of guar gum is especially beneficial for diabetics and prediabetics. It can be used for a wide variety of homemade recipes such as smoothies and shakes. (6)
5) Coconut sugar
Regular table sugar and maltodextrin don’t contain any vital nutrients and therefore supply “empty” calories.
However, coconut sugar contains iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium, along with some short-chain fatty acids like polyphenols and antioxidants.
It also contains a fiber called inulin, which slows glucose absorption. Therefore coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than maltodextrin and table sugar.
6) Maple syrup
This natural sweetener is rich in minerals such as calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, and manganese. It also contains 24 different antioxidants. Hence, it supplies more than just “empty” calories.
It has a glycemic index of 54 against maltodextrin’s glycemic index of 85-135, meaning it provides a slower and more sustainable rise in your blood sugar.
This will also make you feel hungry less often. All these factors make it a more suitable alternative to maltodextrin. Just make sure to get real maple syrup and not the flavored maple syrup that is rich in high fructose corn syrup.
Dates are full of copper, magnesium, iron, manganese, and pyridoxine. They are easy to digest, not to mention delicious. Since they are a natural product, they are inherently better than synthetic maltodextrin.
Dates make great natural sweeteners. Dates can be used in a variety of recipes also, such as date bars, date chocolates, etc. Dates are considered to be an emerging medicinal food. (7)
Concluding thoughts on maltodextrin dangers
A few of maltodextrin’s uses are as a thickener, filler, binding agent or preservative in processed foods. It is also used in carbohydrate supplements for athletes and bodybuilders to boost their energy levels.
Some of the health concerns regarding maltodextrin are its ability to spike blood sugar, suppress the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, and cause allergic reactions or side effects, especially in gluten sensitive individuals.
Consuming maltodextrin in large quantities can be detrimental to health. There are natural, healthier and nutrient-rich alternatives such as stevia, pectin, guar gum, maple syrup, coconut sugar, honey, and dates.