If you've started paying attention to ingredient labels, you've probably come across maltodextrin. It shows up in lots of packaged foods, including plenty of ones that bill themselves as natural.
But what exactly is maltodextrin, and should it get your stamp of approval? Here's the scoop.
What Is Maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin, sometimes also listed as maltrin on ingredient lists, is a common food additive. It's derived from starchy foods like rice, corn, potato starch, or wheat. But it's highly processed from its original plant form into a white, odorless and nearly tasteless powder, per a November 2016 report in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.
Maltodextrin is a carbohydrate, and, like other carbs, delivers 4 calories per gram. In fact, it's a close relative to corn syrup solids, aka corn syrup that's been dehydrated. Both undergo the same chemical processing, but maltodextrin contains a smaller percentage of sugar.
How Is Maltodextrin Made?
Maltodextrin is made via enzymatic or acid hydrolysis, followed by purification and spray drying, per the Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition study.
Basically, plant starches are heated and broken down with the help of bacteria. Then, the water is removed to create a starchy white powder with a neutral flavor and texture.
What Are the Uses of Maltodextrin in Food?
Maltodextrin is really easy to find. It commonly shows up in foods including:
- Protein powders
- Baked goods
- Frozen desserts
- Instant puddings
- Pie fillings
- Food seasonings
- Sports drinks
There are lots of reasons manufacturers use it. Maltodextrin can help improve a food's texture and mouthfeel, especially when fat is reduced or cut out. It also acts as a preservative to give foods longer shelf lives and can slow the rate at which frozen foods like ice cream melt.
What Are the Benefits of Maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is a highly refined carbohydrate, so for the average person, it doesn't have any health perks. But it might be a little more useful to athletes. Because maltodextrin is rapidly digested, it can be added to sports drinks or supplements as a fast energy source for athletes and bodybuilders.
In fact, it's less likely to trigger gastrointestinal issues during endurance sports compared to other carbs commonly used in sports drinks like glucose or sucrose, according to the Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition report.
Is Maltodextrin Safe?
The Food & Drug Administration has labeled maltodextrin as GRAS, or Generally Recognized as Safe. The Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition report also acknowledges that maltodextrin isn't directly tied to any negative health effects.
Still, maltodextrin is most commonly found in processed foods that are high in refined carbohydrates — think: sweet snacks, frozen desserts and baked goods. These foods tend to be low in fiber, vitamins and minerals. And eating too much is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer, per a June 2018 review published in the British Medical Journal.
Is Maltodextrin Gluten-Free?
It can be. Maltodextrin derived from gluten-free ingredients like corn or potato starch is inherently gluten-free. In the U.S., manufacturers primarily make maltodextrin from corn, per the National Celiac Association.
What if the maltodextrin was made from wheat? When that's the case, wheat has to be listed in the label's allergen statement or ingredients list. But even then, the FDA still considers maltodextrin derived from wheat to be gluten-free because the gluten is removed during processing, per the National Celiac Association.
The Verdict: Is It OK to Eat Maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is generally considered safe and isn't directly tied to any adverse health effects. But the additive tends to be found in processed foods that can raise the risk for obesity and other chronic health problems when consumed too often.
The bottom line: It's best to limit foods made with maltodextrin to occasional treats. Not specifically because they contain the additive, but because they're high in refined carbs that aren't healthy in general.
- Cornell University Law School: Maltodextrin
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: On the Molecular Characteristics, Compositional Properties, and Structural-Functional Mechanisms of Maltodextrins: A Review
- PLoS One: The Dietary Polysaccharide Maltodextrin Promotes Salmonella Survival and Mucosal Colonization in Mice
- Medallion Laboratories: Resistant Maltodextrins
- ADM Specialty Food Ingredients: Fibersol-2: Digestion Resistant Maltodextrin
- Journal of Nutrition: The Metabolizable Energy of Dietary Resistant Maltodextrin Is Variable and Alters Fecal Microbiota Composition in Adult Men
- University of California, Los Angeles: Glycemic Index