If you've started paying attention to ingredient labels, you've probably come across maltodextrin. It is in many packaged foods in the United States (and internationally, for that matter) — including ones that tout themselves as "natural."
But is maltodextrin healthy, and what does it mean if it's in many of the foods you eat daily? Here's what you should know about maltodextrin and its effects on blood sugar, bowel diseases and more.
What Is Maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin, which is sometimes listed as "maltrin" on ingredient lists, is a common food additive. It's made from starchy foods like rice, corn, potatoes or wheat. However, it's certainly not a whole food: Manufacturers turn the starches from these foods into an odorless and nearly tasteless powder to make maltodextrin, per a November 2016 report in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.
As a carbohydrate, maltodextrin has 4 calories per gram, per the USDA.
How Is Maltodextrin Made?
To create maltodextrin, the starch of foods undergoes enzymatic or acid hydrolysis (meaning it breaks down), followed by purification and spray drying, per the Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition study.
In other words, plant starches are broken down and then the water is removed to create a starchy, white powder.
What Foods Have Maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is in foods such as:
- Protein powders
- Baked goods
- Frozen desserts
- Instant puddings
- Pie fillings
- Food seasonings
- Sports drinks
There are many reasons manufacturers use maltodextrin. It can help improve a food's texture and mouthfeel, especially for low-fat or no-fat products. It also acts as a preservative to give foods longer shelf lives and can keep frozen foods from melting quickly.
Is Maltodextrin Ever Used at Home?
Is Maltodextrin Safe?
The USDA labels maltodextrin as GRAS, or Generally Recognized as Safe.
Still, it's commonly found in processed foods that are high in refined carbohydrates — like frozen desserts and baked goods. These foods tend to be low in fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Ultra-processed foods make up 58 percent of the total calories in the average American diet, but these foods are linked with obesity, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, per the American College of Cardiology.
Maltodextrin and Diabetes
Maltodextrin may raise your blood sugar, but that doesn't necessarily mean people with type 2 diabetes need to avoid it, per a physician-reviewed article from ConsumerLab.com. If you have type 2 diabetes, you should always talk to your doctor for specific guidance, but it may be safe for you to eat products with maltodextrin as long as you factor it into your total carbohydrate intake.
Although there's no "one-size-fits-all" limit, people with diabetes should aim to get about half of their calories from carbohydrates, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For someone eating 1,800 calories per day, that may mean 65 grams of carbohydrates at breakfast, 59 grams at lunch, 57 grams at dinner and 19 grams in a snack.
Keep in mind that maltodextrin will not be included in the sugar count on a nutrition label, but it will be included in the total carbohydrates, per ConsumerLab.com.
Maltodextrin and Gut Bacteria
Some research suggests that maltodextrin could negatively affect your gut bacteria. The additive has been found to impair cellular anti-bacterial responses and suppress gut antimicrobial defense systems, per a March 2015 study in the journal Gut Microbes.
That said, it's very prevalent in our food system: In one food survey, nearly 99 percent of respondents reported routinely eating foods containing maltodextrin (more than twice a day on average), according to the researchers. Meanwhile, about 60 percent of all packaged items in a survey of grocery store food items had "maltodextrin" or "modified (corn, wheat, etc.) starch" included on the ingredients list.
"As food technology has advanced to produce increasingly shelf-stable products through the addition of dietary additives, we are observing a corresponding increase in chronic inflammatory diseases associated with intestinal barrier dysfunction and bacterial dysbiosis [imbalanced gut bacteria]," note the researchers. "Although these additives have been designated as GRAS by the FDA, more and more studies suggest that these agents may not be safe for individuals with other risk factors for chronic disease."
That said, many of the studies on maltodextrin and gut health have been done in labs or animals. Large studies in humans are needed to confirm the effects of maltodextrin on chronic disease and gut health.
Maltodextrin and GMOs
Maltodextrin is often made with corn — and 80 percent of corn acres in the United States are planted with genetically engineered (GE) seeds, per the USDA. Genetically engineered and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are two terms often used interchangeably to refer to crops developed by nontraditional means, per North Carolina State University Extension.
The FDA considers GMOs safe and says it works closely with the USDA and EPA to ensure that GMO foods and plants are just as safe as non-GMO products. About half of people surveyed around the world believe genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat (and only 13 percent believe they are safe), according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted between 2019 and 2020. Meanwhile, 37 percent said they don't know enough about these types of foods to say.
Starting in January 2022, the USDA will require companies to disclose if foods are bioengineered. These are foods with detectable genetic material that's been changed in the lab and can't be made through normal breeding or found in nature, per the USDA.
Organic foods cannot have GMOs, per the USDA. Just be sure to look for the official USDA organic label.
What Are the Benefits of Maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is a highly refined carbohydrate, so it probably won't benefit the average person. If you're not already eating foods with it, you don't need to add it to your diet.
However, here are a few cases in which maltodextrin might have advantages — but more research is needed.
1. Fuel for Exercise
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.
Although more research is needed, a small February 2013 study found that taking maltodextrin and glutamine (an amino acid) two hours before exercise could help maintain anaerobic power, per the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine.
2. Colon Cancer Prevention
A form of digestive-resistant maltodextrin called Fibersol-2 may help prevent tumor growth in human colon cancer cells, per an April 2015 study in the journal Cancer Biology & Therapy, but more research is needed to confirm these findings.
That said, there are more widely studied ways to prevent colon cancer. According to the Mayo Clinic, these lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of colon cancer:
- Eat a wide range of fruits, vegetables and whole grains
- Drink less alcohol (if at all)
- Don't smoke
- Exercise most days of the week (try to fit in at least 30 minutes most days)
- Maintain a healthy weight
One October 2015 study in the European Journal of Nutrition found that digestion-resistant maltodextrin improved stool volume and consistency, but it was funded by a company that develops maltodextrin. It was also a small study with only 66 adults.
Plus, you'll typically find the additive in processed foods, which do not promote healthy digestion as well as whole foods, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Instead, these are the best ways to improve your digestion naturally, per the Cleveland Clinic:
- Eat five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables per day
- Choose whole grains more often
- Limit how much beef, pork, lamb and processed meat (like bacon or hot dogs) you eat
- Cook by steaming, poaching, stewing, microwaving, braising and boiling instead of grilling and frying
- Eat foods with probiotics like yogurt, kefir, raw apple cider vinegar, garlic, onion and sauerkraut
- Limit foods with animal fats and added sugars like table sugar
Is Maltodextrin Gluten-Free?
It can be. Maltodextrin derived from gluten-free ingredients like corn or potato starch is naturally gluten-free. In the United States, it's mostly made from corn, per the National Celiac Association.
If wheat is used to make maltodextrin, it has to be listed in the label's allergen statement or ingredients list. But even then, maltodextrin made with wheat is generally considered safe for people with celiac disease because the gluten is removed during processing, per the National Celiac Association.
You can find products that use additives other than maltodextrin by looking at the ingredients list. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, food thickeners, stabilizers and gelling agents include:
- Starches such as arrowroot, cornstarch, potato starch, sago and tapioca
- Vegetable gums such as guar gum, xanthan gum and locust bean gum
- Pectin (from apples or citrus fruit)
- Proteins such as collagen, egg whites, gelatin or whey
- Sugars like agar (from algae) or carrageenan (from seaweeds and used to avoid separation in dairy products like ice cream)
- Lecithin (found in legumes, egg yolk and corn)
When cooking at home, you may use thickeners, stabilizers and gelling agents to create stiffness, stabilize emulsions or form gels. You can do so with egg yolks, yogurt, gelatin, mustard and vegetable purees, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
You also don't necessarily need supplements before a workout: You can get a carbohydrate boost by having a glass of fruit juice, a cup of yogurt or an English muffin with jelly before exercising if you'll be working out for more than an hour, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
The Verdict: Is It OK to Eat Maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is generally considered safe and more research is needed to confirm any negative health impacts. However, it is often in processed foods that can raise your risk for obesity and other chronic health problems.
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 usually highly processed foods that are less healthy than whole foods.
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: "Nutrition, Health, and Regulatory Aspects of Digestible Maltodextrins"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "How many calories are in one gram of fat, carbohydrate, or protein?"
- Splenda: "Why are dextrose and maltodextrin used in some Splenda® Brand Sweeteners?"
- In The Raw: "FAQ"
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: "CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21"
- American College of Cardiology: "Ultra-Processed Foods Are Breaking Your Heart"
- ConsumerLab.com: "I have type 2 diabetes. Should I be concerned about ingredients like maltodextrin and maltitol that are found in some protein bars and drinks?"
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Carb Counting"
- Gut Microbes: "Deregulation of intestinal anti-microbial defense by the dietary additive, maltodextrin"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "ERS Charts of Note"
- North Carolina State University Extension: "What Is the Difference Between Genetically Modified Organisms and Genetically Engineered Organisms?"
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: "How GMOs Are Regulated for Food and Plant Safety in the United States"
- World Health Organization: "Food, genetically modified"
- Pew Research Center: "Science and Scientists Held in High Esteem Across Global Publics"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "BE Disclosure"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Can GMOs Be Used in Organic Products?"
- Asian Journal of Sports Medicine: "Effect of Glutamine and Maltodextrin Acute Supplementation on Anaerobic Power"
- European Journal of Nutrition: "Digestion-resistant maltodextrin effects on colonic transit time and stool weight: a randomized controlled clinical study"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Eating for Your Gut"
- Cleveland Clinic: "How to Improve Your Digestive Track Naturally"
- National Celiac Association: "Maltodextrin"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Stabilizers, Thickeners and Gelling Agents"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Nutrition and athletic performance"
- PLoS One: The Dietary Polysaccharide Maltodextrin Promotes Salmonella Survival and Mucosal Colonization in Mice
- 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