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Do you read nutrition labels before you buy foods? If so, you’re not alone.

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 processed foods. But is it bad for you? And should you avoid it?

Maltodextrin is a white powder made from corn, rice, potato starch, or wheat.

Even though it comes from plants, it’s highly processed.

The process of making it involves cooking the starches and then adding acids or enzymes, such as heat-stable bacterial alpha-amylase, to break it down further. The resulting white powder is water-soluble and has a neutral taste.

Maltodextrins are closely related to corn syrup solids — the one difference is their sugar content.

Both undergo hydrolysis, a chemical process involving the addition of water to further assist breakdown. However, after hydrolysis, corn syrup solids are at least 20% sugar, while maltodextrin is less than 20% sugar.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved maltodextrin as a safe food additive. Maltodextrin is also included in the nutritional value of food as part of the total carbohydrate count.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carbohydrates should make up 45–65% of your overall calories. Ideally, most of those should be complex carbohydrates, which are rich in fiber, rather than simple carbohydrates, which 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, maltodextrin is usually present in foods in only small amounts. It will not have a significant effect on your overall carbohydrate intake.

Maltodextrin has a high glycemic index (GI) value, which means it can cause a spike in your blood sugar. It’s safe to consume in very small amounts, but people with diabetes should be particularly mindful of how much they consume.

Diets consisting largely of low GI foods are beneficial for everyone, not just people with diabetes.

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 such as instant puddings and gelatins, sauces, and salad dressings. It can also be combined with artificial sweeteners to sweeten products such as canned fruits, desserts, and powdered drinks.

It’s even used as a thickener in personal care items such as lotion and hair care products.

Maltodextrin has 4 calories per gram — the same number of calories as sucrose, or table sugar.

Your body can digest maltodextrin quickly, just as it does sugar, so maltodextrin is useful if you need a quick boost of calories and energy. However, it has a GI ranging from 106 to 136, higher than table sugar. This means that it can raise your blood sugar level very quickly.

Maltodextrin’s high GI means that it can cause spikes in your blood sugar level, especially if you consume it in large amounts.

Because of this, you may want to avoid it or limit your consumption of it if you have diabetes or insulin resistance. You should also avoid it if you’re predisposed to developing diabetes.

Limiting your maltodextrin intake make also help keep your gut bacteria healthy.

A 2012 study published in PLoS ONE suggests that 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 immune system function.

The same study suggests that maltodextrin can increase the growth of bacteria such as E. coli, which is associated with autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease.

A 2019 review suggests that maltodextrin can impair intestinal mucus release, which can increase the risk of colitis.

On the other hand, a small 2020 study suggests that maltodextrin may actually promote the growth of healthy bifidobacterium in the digestive system. However, the 2020 study included only 13 participants, and more research is needed.

Overall, we are unsure of the impact of maltodextrin on the microbiome. If you’re at risk for developing an autoimmune or digestive disorder, then avoiding maltodextrin may be a good idea.

Maltodextrin and gluten

If you’re following 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 advocacy group Beyond Celiac, the processing that wheat starches undergo in the creation of maltodextrin renders it gluten-free. So, if you have celiac disease or another gluten-related disorder, you can still consume maltodextrin.

Maltodextrin and weight loss

If you’re trying to lose weight, it may be a good idea to avoid maltodextrin.

It’s essentially a sweetener and a carbohydrate with no nutritional value, and it causes an increase in blood sugar. The levels of sugar in maltodextrin can lead to weight gain.

Maltodextrin and genetically modified (GMO) foods

Finally, because it’s often used as a cheap thickener or filler, maltodextrin is usually manufactured from GMO corn.

According to the FDA, GMO corn is safe and meets all the same standards as non-GMO plants.

But if you choose to avoid GMOs, that doesn’t mean you need to avoid all foods that contain maltodextrin. Any food that’s labeled “organic” in the United States must also be GMO-free.

Since maltodextrin has the potential to cause rapid increases in blood sugar levels, people with diabetes would be better off largely avoiding it.

However, maltodextrin is often safe in small doses. You should be fine as long as you’re only consuming maltodextrin in small amounts and you’re counting it in your carbohydrate total for the day.

If you’re unsure how it will affect your blood sugar, check your glucose levels more often when you add maltodextrin into your diet.

Signs that maltodextrin has caused your blood sugar to spike include:

If you experience any of these symptoms, check your blood sugar levels immediately. If they’re too high, contact your doctor.

Some artificial sweeteners are thought to be better choices for blood sugar management. However, new research is dispelling that myth by revealing that artificial sweeteners affect gut bacteria and indirectly affect insulin sensitivity.

Maltodextrin has a variety of benefits.

You can shop for maltodextrin online.

Exercise

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 require as much water to digest as some other carbohydrates, it’s a good way to get quick calories without becoming dehydrated.

A small 2013 study also suggests that maltodextrin supplements can help maintain anaerobic power during exercise. However, more research is needed.

Chronic hypoglycemia

Some people with chronic hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) take maltodextrin as part of their regular treatment. Because maltodextrin causes a fast increase in blood sugar, it’s an effective treatment for those who have difficulty maintaining adequate blood sugar levels.

Maltodextrin can provide a quick solution if someone’s blood sugar level gets too low.

Colorectal cancer

There is some evidence that maltodextrin’s fermentation in the intestines could act as an agent that helps prevent colorectal cancer.

A recent laboratory study found that Fibersol-2, a form of digestion-resistant maltodextrin, had antitumor activity. It prevented tumor growth without any apparent toxic side effects.

Digestion

A study published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that digestion-resistant maltodextrin had positive effects on overall digestion. It improved intestinal functions such as colonic transit time, stool volume, and stool consistency.

Common sweeteners that are used in home cooking instead of maltodextrin include:

These are all sweeteners that can cause spikes and increases in your blood sugar levels, just like maltodextrin. You can consider using pureed, mashed, or sliced whole fruits to sweeten foods for a bounty of fiber, sweetness, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and water content.

Other thickening agents, such as guar gum and pectin, can be used as substitutes in baking and cooking.

Sweeteners that may not affect your blood sugar levels as much, as long as you consume them in moderation, include:

Sugar alcohols such as polydextrose are used to sweeten foods and can be found in processed foods that are labeled “sugar-free” or “no added sugar.”

Your body only partially absorbs sugar alcohols, so they do not have the same effect on blood sugar as other sweeteners.

Even so, it’s a good idea to limit your consumption of sugar alcohols to 10 grams per day to prevent gastrointestinal side effects such as flatulence. Erythritol is often reported to be more tolerable.

Like sugar and other simple carbohydrates, maltodextrin can be part of a balanced diet, but it shouldn’t be the main course, especially for people with diabetes and those who want to maintain their weight.

As long as you limit your consumption of it and balance it with fiber and protein, maltodextrin can add valuable carbohydrates and energy to your diet, especially if you’re an athlete or you need to increase your blood sugar level.

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