Going grocery shopping can feel stressful enough on its own. From deciding what to cook for dinner to getting lost in aisles upon aisles of choices and feeling so hangry that you want to buy everything in sight. Throw reading nutrition facts into the mix, and you might be completely overwhelmed. Deciphering food labels can sometimes feel like chemistry class – after all, how can we be expected to know what words like polysaccharide and sodium carrageenan mean?
However, if you’re trying to improve your health, reading food labels is something we here at 8fit highly recommend. Among the long list of obscure ingredients, you may notice one that regularly appears in your food — Maltodextrin. But what is maltodextrin? Why is it in so many packaged foods? And is it safe to eat?
What is maltodextrin?
Perhaps you’ve seen it on food labels, but you were unaware of what maltodextrin is. Well, it’s an additive that some manufacturers add to their products to improve flavor, texture, and shelf life. Food producers can derive this white, powdery substance from any starch, but it’s typically made from corn, rice, potato, or wheat. Although these ingredients sound natural, maltodextrin, like any additive, can have a potential adverse effect on your health.
Maltodextrin is a processed substance created through hydrolysis. This chemical reaction breaks starch down into smaller pieces – almost like a form of digestion. The smaller the molecule, the more easily it’s absorbed into your bloodstream.
Maltodextrin is a polysaccharide, meaning it’s a starch that’s broken down into many sugar molecules. It’s produced to have a sugar content of 20% or less, which is why it’s in so many diet products like nutrition bars, meal shakes, and artificial sweeteners like Splenda. But it’s not all it seems – due to its high glycemic index, it can cause a drastic spike in blood sugar.
The benefits of maltodextrin
In the food manufacturing world, maltodextrin binds ingredients, improves texture and taste, replaces sugar and extends a product’s shelf life. That’s all well and good, but keep in mind that the more processed food is, the unhealthier it tends to be.
Maltodextrin has no nutritional value, but the body absorbs it quickly, providing quick energy and making it a staple in the sports nutrition industry. Companies add it to sports drinks, supplements and protein bars for fast replenishment. Some athletes, in turn, consume high glycemic index foods to restore their body’s glycogen as rapidly as possible while increasing calories for weight gain.
People experiencing chronic low blood sugar may use maltodextrin as an emergency blood glucose source. For those who experience hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) crashes, maltodextrin can deliver a much-needed boost of energy. However, it’s not recommended for standard blood sugar regulation as it can lead to extreme ups and downs of glucose and hormones, as well as lead to regular sweet cravings.
What are the side effects of maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin has a high glycemic index which can lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance can cause weight gain, diabetes, and inflammation over time. Believe it or not, the glycemic index for maltodextrin is even higher than sugar! Researchers have proven that maltodextrin has adverse effects on blood sugar and contains no nutritional value. For this reason alone, it’s less desirable than natural sources of starch and complex carbohydrates. We recommend limiting or avoiding maltodextrin if you’re trying to lose weight.
Which foods contain maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is made from corn, rice, potato, or wheat starch and is used in as an additive in processed foods and sports supplements.
Foods that may include maltodextrin:
Meat alternatives — veggie burgers, vegan ground meat, vegan chicken nuggets
Grains — some types of pasta, cooked rice, cooked cereals
Sauces — salad dressings, BBQ sauces, marinades
Soups — particularly packaged or canned
Energy or sports drinks and sodas
Frozen meals — TV dinners
Candies and sweets
Is maltodextrin gluten-free?
The answer to this question depends on where you live. In the United States, maltodextrin is made primarily from corn. If the product in question is FDA-regulated and contains maltodextrin from wheat, the product’s packaging must specify that it contains traces of wheat. However, for non-FDA regulated foods, including those controlled by the USDA, it’s not a requirement to indicate the origin on the food label. So, if you’re gluten intolerant, be careful when choosing meats, meat alternatives, poultry, and egg products – they may contain maltodextrin.
In Europe, maltodextrin is primarily made from wheat. However, the process of manufacturing maltodextrin includes removing the protein: the part of gluten that causes allergic reactions. Keep in mind that these products may still have trace amounts of gluten and could have been compromised by cross-contamination during production. If you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, it’s probably best to stay safe and avoid maltodextrin entirely.
Maltodextrin: Dangers and side effects
Genetically modified foods are controversial – their primary purpose is to extend shelf life, as to benefit the food industry. Some genetically modified ingredients are engineered to have a resistance to specific pathogens. They are recognized as safe by the FDA, however, some studies have shown that GMO foods may be linked to some health issues and possibly produce toxic effects in the body. As most of the corn used to make maltodextrin is genetically modified, you may wish to steer clear of it if you’re opposed to eating GMO foods.
Bad gut bacteria
Maltodextrin may affect the balance of gut bacteria, increasing the amount of so-called “bad” bacteria in the digestive system. It has even been shown to boost Salmonella in mice and was proven to alter gut bacteria and increase E. coli in people with digestive disorders like Crohn’s. This increase of bad bacteria can lead to inflammation, digestive issues, and even auto-immune disorders.
Food additives can lead to allergic reactions in people with certain intolerances. Maltodextrin has been recorded to cause tummy troubles such as bloating and diarrhea. Other common symptoms of allergies or sensitivities include skin irritation like rashes and itching. If you experience any of these symptoms after eating maltodextrin, as well as extreme allergic reactions such as shortness of breath and increased blood pressure, contact your physician or emergency medical provider immediately.
It all goes to show that paying attention to the food we put into our bodies is vital to our wellbeing. At 8fit, we believe that the key to health is a diet consisting of minimally processed, balanced, wholesome, and varied foods. Sign up for 8fit PRO to access a plethora of healthy, all natural recipes that are easy to make and delicious to taste.