Look over the food labels of many of your packaged foods and you may notice a very common ingredient called maltodextrin. This artificially produced white powder is often used in our everyday foods, like yogurt, sauces and salad dressings, sometimes without us even realizing it.
The truth is that maltodextrin can be considered a metabolism death food — it lacks nutritional value, and there are some pretty scary maltodextrin dangers to consider before opening up a bag of chips or baked goods, such as spiking blood sugar. The good news is that there are healthier, more natural substitutes for maltodextrin, and some of them may already be sitting in your kitchen cabinet.
What Is Maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is used as a thickener, filler or preservative in many processed foods. It’s an artificially produced white powder that can be enzymatically derived from any starch, most commonly made from corn, rice, potato starch or wheat.
Although maltodextrin comes from natural foods, it’s highly processed. The starch goes through a process called partial hydrolysis, which uses water, enzymes and acids to break down the starch and create the water-soluble white powder. When the powder is added to food, it thickens the product, prevents crystallization and helps bind ingredients together. (1) The difference between maltodextrin and corn syrup solids is that maltodextrin is hydrolyzed to have less than 20 percent sugar content, whereas corn syrup solids have more than 20 percent sugar content.
Maltodextrin is a polysaccharide, which is a type of carbohydrate. It’s commonly used as a thickener or filler to increase the volume of processed foods, like instant puddings and gelatins, sauces and salad dressings, baked goods, potato chips, jerky, yogurts, nutrition bars, meal replacement shakes, and sugar-free sweeteners (like Splenda). Tapioca maltodextrin is used to make powders because it absorbs and thickens fats. It encapsulates the oil and holds it within the powder until it comes into contact with water. (2)
Bodybuilders sometimes use simple carbohydrates after hard workouts in order to restore the body’s glycogen (stored energy) and glucose (usable energy) levels. Post-workout, bodybuilders or athletes may choose to consume high glycemic foods (like maltodextrin and dextrose) that raise normal blood sugar and insulin levels in order to get carbohydrates to the muscle cells.
According to research published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, carbohydrate powder in the form of maltodextrin is safe for healthy young athletes who use it for post-exercise glycogen resynthesis, assuming they have adequate glucose metabolism. (3)
5 Dangers of Maltodextrin
1. Spikes Blood Sugar
Maltodextrin can cause spikes in your blood sugar because it has a high glycemic index, and this can be particularly dangerous for people with diabetes symptoms or insulin resistance. Maltodextrin’s glycemic index is even higher than table sugar, ranging from 106 to 136 (while table sugar is 65).
Easily absorbed carbohydrates like maltodextrin and sugar get into your bloodstream quickly, and if the carbs aren’t used for energy, they’re stored as fat. This is very different than real complex carbohydrates from whole grains that are broken down and absorbed slowly, helping keep you feeling full and energized for a longer period of time. (4)
2. Suppresses the Growth of Probiotics
Maltodextrin can change the composition of your gut bacteria by suppressing the growth of beneficial probiotics. Research conducted at Lerner Research Institute in Ohio relays polysaccharides like maltodextrin have been linked to bacteria-associated intestinal disorders. According to researchers, the escalating consumption of polysaccharides in Western diets parallels an increased incidence of Crohn’s disease during the late 20th century.
A 2012 study found that maltodextrin increased bacterial adhesion to human intestinal epithelial cells and enhanced E. coli adhesion, which is associated with autoimmune disorders. (5) Even more research points out that maltodextrin promotes the survival of salmonella, which may be responsible for a broad range of chronic inflammatory diseases. (6)
A study conducted at the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center in Boston also indicates that maltodextrin impairs cellular antibacterial responses and suppresses intestinal antimicrobial defense mechanisms, leading to inflammatory bowel disease and other conditions that arise from an inappropriate immune response to bacteria. (7)
3. Made From Genetically Modified Corn
Although the Food and Drug Administration does not require safety testing for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), increasing independent research has linked them to a number of health issues, including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, kidney damage, antibiotic resistance, reproduction disorders and allergies.
According to research published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, genetically modified foods have shown that they may toxically affect several bodily organs and systems, including the pancreatic, renal, reproductive and immunologic parameters. (8) Because corn maltodextrin is made by processing corn with enzymes and the United States Department of Agriculture found that 85 percent of corn planted in the U.S. is genetically modified to be tolerant to herbicides, it’s most likely that the maltodextrin you eat is a genetically modified food.
4. May Cause an Allergic Reaction or Side Effects
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology found that maltodextrin consumption, especially at higher doses, may cause gastrointestinal symptoms, such as gurgling sounds, gas and even diarrhea. (9) There have also been reports of other allergic reactions to maltodextrin, such as skin irritations, cramping and bloating.
Maltodextrin is sometimes made with wheat, but the production process is said to completely remove gluten from the wheat, making it “safe” to eat for people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance symptoms. During the processing of maltodextrin, all proteins are removed, including gluten, but there may still be traces of gluten in products containing maltodextrin. This can be dangerous for people suffering some celiac disease or a gluten intolerance.
You may see maltodextrin listed with the product ingredients, but the name doesn’t indicate the source, such as wheat. Although maltodextrin is generally considered to be gluten-free, people with severe allergies should avoid foods containing this ingredient.
5. Has No Nutritious Value
A teaspoon of maltodextrin has about 15 calories and 3.8 grams of carbohydrates, and that’s about it. It’s so highly processed that it’s devoid of all nutrients. While it can spike blood sugar levels and promote the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut, there are no health benefits that come with the consumption of maltodextrin. (10) When choosing foods to use as sweeteners, binders or bulking agents, pick natural foods that provide some nutritional value.
5 Better Substitutes for Maltodextrin
If you tend to eat packaged or processed foods, chances are that you often consume maltodextrin. Sticking to natural, whole foods is always a healthier and safer choice, especially if you have blood sugar issues or trouble managing weight. There are natural sweeteners that add flavor to food, help restore glucose and glycogen levels, and can be used to bind ingredients or add bulk to recipes. Here are some better substitutes for maltodextrin.
Stevia is a no-calorie, all-natural sweetener that comes from the leaf of the stevia plant. However, it’s important to know that not all stevia is created equal. There are three main categories of stevia — green leaf stevia, stevia extracts and altered stevia (like Truvia). Green leaf stevia is the best choice because it’s the least processed.
Stevia has some sweet health benefits too. Research shows that there are some positive stevia side effects; it can significantly reduce fasting blood sugar levels and balance insulin resistance in diabetic rats, for example. (11) Using a high-quality stevia extract instead of table sugar or other processed forms of sugar, like maltodextrin, also helps you decrease not only your overall daily sugar intake, but your caloric intake as well.
Pectin is a carbohydrate that’s extracted from fruits, vegetables and seeds. Nutrition-rich pears, apples, guavas, quince, plums, oranges and other citrus fruits contain large amounts of pectin. The main use for pectin is as a gelling agent, thickening agent and stabilizer in food. You can find it as an extract or powder in most grocery and health food stores, or you can easily extract pectin from apples at home.
There are many health benefits to using pectin as a cooking and baking agent. Most notably, it’s high in water-soluble fiber and promotes digestive health. It works by binding to fatty substances in the digestive tract, including cholesterol and toxins, and promotes their elimination, thereby detoxifying the body and regulating the body’s use of sugar. (12)
Dates provide potassium, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium and vitamin B6. They’re easily digested and help metabolize proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Research suggests that there are numerous health benefits of dates, and they serve as a potential medicinal food for humans around the world. (13)
Dates make great natural sweeteners and sugar alternatives, plus they can be used to bind ingredients together, just like maltodextrin (but way healthier). You can also use Medjool dates to make a paste in order to add bulk when you’re baking.
You can switch out your intake of processed carbohydrates to boost energy and replenish glycogen stores with pure, raw honey instead. Raw honey is unfiltered and unpasteurized, so it holds incredible nutritional value and health powers. It contains 80 percent natural sugars, so it’s not surprising that it has been called “the perfect running fuel.” Honey provides an easily absorbed supply of energy in the form of liver glycogen, making it ideal as a pre- and post-exercise energy source. Plus, there are many other health benefits of raw honey.
Unlike processed simple carbohydrates, honey raises levels of health-promoting antioxidants in the body, thereby boosting the immune system and acting as a preventative against many debilitating diseases. Honey also benefits the gastrointestinal tract and improves glycemic control. In fact, research shows that honey has antidiabetic effects. (14)
5. Guar Gum
Guar gum is one of the most frequently used binding gums in gluten-free recipes and baked gluten-free products. It can be used in place of maltodextrin and other binding products, and it works as a thickening agent too. It’s very useful for keeping thinner ingredients, like water, combined uniformly with thicker ingredients, like coconut cream or oil. It can be used to make homemade kefir, yogurt, sherbet, almond milk or coconut milk.
Unlike maltodextrin, guar gum actually slows down glucose absorption, which is beneficial for people with prediabetes, diabetes or high cholesterol levels. (15)
Final Thoughts on Maltodextrin
- Maltodextrin is used as a thickener, filler or preservative in many processed foods. It’s an artificially produced white powder that can be enzymatically derived from any starch but is commonly made from corn, rice, potato starch or wheat.
- Maltodextrin is also used in carbohydrate supplements that are marketed to athletes and bodybuilders as a way to boost their energy levels.
- Some dangers of consuming maltodextrin include its ability to spike blood sugar, suppress the growth of probiotics, toxically affect several bodily organs and systems, and cause allergic reactions or side effects.
- There are healthier and more natural, nutrient-dense substitutes for maltodextrin that provide a range of health benefits, including stevia, pectin, dates, honey and guar gum.