If you have read the list of ingredients on any packaged cereals, desserts, sodas, salad dressings, candy, sugar substitutes or any number of other foods, you may have found yourself wondering what is maltodextrin? (along with a slew of other mysterious ingredients).
Maltodextrin is one of those “sneaky” food additives that you are probably consuming whether you know it or not, especially if you eat processed foods. It also turns up in some unexpected places such as some vitamin supplements, pharmaceuticals, and sugar substitutes like Splenda and Equal.
What is Maltodextrin Made of?
Maltodextrin is produced from starch, and on its own usually appears as a white powder or a concentrated solution. In the United States it is typically made from corn, rice or potato starch, while in Europe wheat is commonly used. Barley is another possible source. It is made by cooking the starch in the presence of acids and/or enzymes in a process called hydrolysis, which is similar to the way starch is broken down during digestion.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, maltodextrin “is a nonsweet nutritive saccharide polymer that consists of D-glucose units linked primarily by [alpha]-1–4 bonds. In other words, maltodextrin is a carbohydrate made up of chains of glucose, a simple sugar. It commonly confused with maltose because of its name, but maltodextrin does not contain maltose.
Maltodextrin can be slightly sweet to almost flavorless. Although the FDA calls it “nonsweet,” different types of maltodextrin vary in sweetness and have a range of DE values.
What is Maltodextrin Used for?
You will find maltodextrin in many, if not most, processed foods. Sometimes it is added to give a slight sweet taste to products like cereals, potato chips and powdered drinks. It is also used as a thickener or filler because it is inexpensive and does not significantly alter the flavor of processed foods.
It is used as a binder in many vitamins and pharmaceuticals, both in pill and powder form. It is found in many sports drinks as a source of rapidly absorbed carbohydrates. Maltodextrin is also used as a filler in sugar substitutes like Splenda and Equal. Splenda contains sucralose, which is approximately 600 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose), so only a tiny amount of sucralose is used in a packet of Splenda—the rest is maltodextrin. This also means that sugar substitutes containing maltodextrin are not truly sugar-free.
Are there Maltodextrin Side Effects to Your Health?
While maltodextrin is made from natural sources (it can even be considered organic, if the starch is from organically grown plants), it is still a processed additive isolated from its natural context.
For optimal health, a diet of whole, organic, unprocessed foods is recommended. If consuming processed foods always read the the label and ask questions like “What is Maltodextrin?” about the ingredients.
The use of wheat or barley starch may be of concern for those who suffer from wheat gluten intolerance or celiac disease.
Like all carbohydrates, maltodextrin contains 4 calories per gram. It is not as sweet to the taste as sucrose (table sugar) or glucose because of its chemical structure, but it does have high glycemic index. It’s easily digested and absorbed, and it will have an effect on blood sugar depending on the amount present in foods eaten. It’s often difficult to tell how much maltodextrin is present because it’s included in the total carbohydrate content of processed foods.
Other articles will look at some of the possible maltodextrin side effects in more detail.