Is Maltodextrin Bad for Me?

Key points

  1. Most people can safely consume maltodextrin in moderate amounts.
  2. The FDA considers maltodextrin to be a safe food additive. It’s used as a thickener, filler, or preservative in many processed foods.
  3. Maltodextrin can cause spikes in your blood sugar because it has a high glycemic index. You may want to avoid maltodextrin if you have diabetes or insulin resistance.

Do you read nutrition labels before you buy? If so, you’re not alone. According to the 2014 Food and Drug Administration Health and Diet Survey, 77 percent of consumers check out the nutrition ingredients at least some of the time, especially when buying a new product. That’s a nearly 20 percent increase from the same survey in 2008. So interest in food ingredients among consumers seems to be on the rise.

Unless you’re a nutritionist or dietitian, reading nutrition labels will probably introduce you to numerous ingredients you don’t recognize. One ingredient you’ll encounter in many foods is maltodextrin. It’s a common additive in many processed foods, but is it bad for you? Or should you avoid it?

What is maltodextrin?

Maltodextrin is a white powder made from corn, rice, potato starch, or wheat. Even though it comes from plants, it’s highly processed. To make it, first the starches are cooked, and then acids or enzymes are added to break it down further. The resulting white powder is water-soluble and has a neutral taste.

Why is maltodextrin in your food?

Maltodextrin is generally used as a thickener or filler to increase the volume of a processed food. It’s also a preservative that increases the shelf life of packaged foods. It’s inexpensive and easy to produce, so it’s useful for thickening products like instant pudding and gelatins, sauces, and salad dressings. It can also be combined with artificial sweeteners to sweeten products like canned fruits, desserts, and powdered drinks. It’s even used as a thickener in personal care items like lotion and hair care products.

What is the nutritional value of maltodextrin?

Maltodextrin has 4 calories per gram — the same amount as sucrose, or table sugar. Like sugar, your body can digest maltodextrin quickly, so it’s useful if you need a quick boost of calories and energy. However, maltodextrin’s glycemic index is higher than table sugar, ranging from 106 to 136. This means that it can raise your blood sugar level very quickly.

Is maltodextrin safe?

The Food and Drug Administration has approved maltodextrin as a safe food additive. It’s included in the nutrition value of food as part of the total carbohydrate count. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carbohydrates should make up no more than 45-65% of your overall calories. Ideally, most of those carbohydrates should be complex carbohydrates that are rich in fiber, not foods that quickly raise your blood sugar.

If you have diabetes or insulin resistance, or if your doctor has recommended a low-carbohydrate diet, you should include any maltodextrin you eat in your total carbohydrate count for the day. However, it’s usually only present in food in small amounts, so it won’t have a significant effect on your overall carbohydrate intake.

When should you avoid maltodextrin?

The high glycemic index of maltodextrin means it can cause spikes in your blood sugar level, especially if it’s consumed in large amounts. Because of this, you may want to avoid maltodextrin if you have diabetes or insulin resistance.

Another reason to limit maltodextrin is to keep your gut bacteria healthy. According to a 2012 study published in PLOS ONE, maltodextrin can change your gut bacteria composition in a way that makes you more susceptible to disease. It can suppress the growth of probiotics in your digestive system, which are important for the functioning of your immune system. The same study showed that maltodextrin can increase the growth of bacteria such as E. coli, which is associated with autoimmune disorders like Crohn’s disease. If you’re at risk for developing an autoimmune or digestive disorder, then avoiding maltodextrin may be a good idea.

If you’re on a gluten-free diet, you may be concerned about maltodextrin because it has “malt” in the name. Malt is made from barley, so it contains gluten. However, maltodextrin is gluten-free, even when it’s made from wheat. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, the processing that wheat starches undergo in the creation of maltodextrin renders it gluten-free. So if you have celiac disease or if you’re on a GF diet, you can still consume maltodextrin.

Finally, because it’s often used as a cheap thickener or filler, maltodextrin is usually manufactured from genetically modified corn. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, GMO corn is safe, and it meets all the same standards as non-genetically-modified plants. But if you choose to avoid GMO, that doesn’t mean you need to avoid all foods that contain maltodextrin — any food that’s labeled with the USDA 100% organic seal is also GMO-free.

Is maltodextrin ever good for you?

Because maltodextrin is a fast-digesting carbohydrate, it’s often included in sports drinks and snacks for athletes. For bodybuilders and other athletes trying to gain weight, maltodextrin can be a good source of quick calories during or after a workout. Since maltodextrin doesn’t use as much water to digest as some carbohydrates, it’s a good way to get quick calories without becoming dehydrated. Some research also shows that maltodextrin supplements can help maintain anaerobic power during exercise.

What’s the take home message?

Like sugar and other simple carbohydrates, maltodextrin can be part of a healthy diet, but it shouldn’t be the main course. As long as you limit it and other processed foods, and balance your diet with plenty of whole, fiber-rich foods, occasional intake of maltodextrin isn’t likely to steer your health off-course.