If you’re a nutrition nerd like me, I’m sure you’ve made peeking at nutrition facts labels a habit you just can’t shake.
I’d also bet that you’ve also seen a little something randomly pop up on a variety of processed foods, drinks and especially your protein powder. As for that last one, approach with caution if that’s the case, but that’s an article for a different day.
That something is called maltodextrin and you should be aware of what exactly it is, especially if you are a fitness freak or athlete because this stuff is in more sports products than you think.
If you’re already aware, odds are you either don’t mind the stuff or you think of it like the devil’s poison because you’ve heard people say it’ll give you diabetes and make you fat.
But is it really bad for you? Should you avoid it?
Well the truth is ...a bit complicated.
Let’s look closer.
What Is Maltodextrin Exactly?
To be clear, and as the name probably implies, maltodextrin isn’t exactly a “natural” food additive.
It’s true that maltodextrin is made from corn, rice, potatoes and/or wheat, but the end product is a white, flavorless powder that maintains very little of the nutrition you’d get from eating these whole foods.
In fact, once you factor in all the acids, enzymes and heat this stuff is put through, you could definitely classify it as something highly processed. It’s also almost pure carbohydrate with no fiber, protein or fat.
Finally, we put this guy under the category of a carbohydrate with a high glycemic index. All that jazz basically means that it absorbs quickly and spikes blood sugar rapidly. Basically, it behaves in the body like sugar.
Soooo it if there’s no flavor and, unlike sugar, it’s not used as a sweetener then why is the stuff made in the first place? What do they use it for?
As is the case with most food additives, food scientists have many uses for maltodextrin to thicken foods, improve texture, provide bulk to a product and to make food live longer on grocery shelves without going bad.
And extending shelf life means less food waste which means more $$$ for food and supplement companies. That’s why you find maltodextrin in SO MANY processed foods these days.
One big food item you may have heard of is protein powder. I could write an entire article on this (and oh, believe you me, it’s coming).
But, one thing I ALWAYS tell people is that if you’re shopping for a protein powder, flip it around to look at the ingredients list and maltodextrin is the first ingredient? Put it back immediately.
Maltodextrin is an incredibly cheap ingredient and, because its texture is also a powder, many supplement companies often use it to “boost” the weight of their protein powders to save money. This is particularly common in weight gainer powders.
However, wait just a second before we totally kill its poor character.
As I said, you may have seen this ingredient show its face in your protein powder, but it’s also added to protein bars and even sports drinks. One reason for that is there is some evidence that it may improve athletic performance.
Say what? Processed food that improves performance? Could it be true?
Is Maltodextrin Unhealthy?
A 2016 review concluded that the practice of using maltodextrin in place of sugar in food neither promotes health nor does it hurt it.
However, take this advice with a huge asterisk. Sugar still is something that should be consumed in moderation and nutritional guidelines state you shouldn’t have more than 10% of your calorie intake from added sugars.
That said, you can conclude that you should treat maltodextrin just like sugar. Fine in moderation; big health problem in excess. This excludes special cases such as very intensely exercising individuals who may consume sugar-containing products in high amounts to fuel their activity, but burn most of it off and do enough exercising to not fall victim to many of the damaging effects excess sugar has on those who do little or no exercise.
So, it’s not that maltodextrin is bad for you. In fact, like most sugars, it’s more or less benign in moderation, and it’s unlikely to cause any health problems so long as you don’t eat large amounts of it for long periods of time.
So...Are There Any Benefits to Performance?
Let me just start off by saying that maltodextrin don’t have jack on nutrient-dense carb sources like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. As I’ve already said, it’s a carb and calorie source, but wouldn’t it make sense to get carbs and calories and vitamins and minerals from whatever it is you’re eating?
After all, a nourished body is going to perform better than one fueled by the same calories, only emptier, right.
It can be a game-changer for people who engage in endurance exercise.
Now that I got my runners and cyclists’ attention, let’s talk about why.
Here’s the thing, when you’re an endurance athlete, you should be consuming at least 30 grams of carbohydrate every hour during your exercise for optimal performance. You also need to be sure you’re drinking enough fluids, because even with adequate carbs, you’ll still experience fatigue if you become dehydrated during exercise.
These two reasons are why nearly all popular sports drinks made for endurance athletes have both fluid (duh) and maltodextrin. Extra points if they contain electrolytes also.
So...why maltodextrin? Why not just drink Gatorade that contains carbs from sugar? What makes maltodextrin special when compared to sugar or glucose or, hell, high fructose corn syrup?
The thing is, the intestines only have enough receptors to absorb a certain amount of carb at a time. Too much glucose and the gut gets overloaded which can cause a lot of discomfort, diarrhea and even dehydration. Also, because your intestines are overloaded, the sugar just sits there in your stomach and doesn’t make it to the bloodstream in enough time to promote the performance you’re already actively engaged in.
What’s special about maltodextrin is that it has a different chemical makeup than glucose or plain ol’ sugar, meaning that you can consume way more of it at once and it’ll be absorbed much more readily by the gut during a workout or competition than the more simple carbohydrates.
Not an endurance athlete? I’d say that maltodextrin doesn’t have anything to offer you that something like sugar or another carbohydrate source couldn’t. So, don’t go out of your way to find it.
The bottom line?
Maltodextrin is a man-made, white, flavorless powder that can’t be found in nature, but is prevalent in processed foods, especially sports drinks and supplements.
Like sugar, it’s fine in moderation, but watch your intake and make sure it’s not excessive, especially if you don’t exercise often.
The FDA has classified it as safe to consume despite it being somewhat of a chemical, so don’t be afraid of it being unsafe as there have been no solid studies that say that it’s bad for your health. At least no more than eating sugar and other refined carbs in excess, but we already knew that.
Finally, maltodextrin can have a special benefit for endurance athletes who need a big dose of carbs to chug through their long bout of exercise without all of the stomach upset. Interested? Here is a supplement for it from a company I respect. It’s also Informed Choice certified for any of you athletes out there who receive drug testing!
If you’re an athlete, powerlifter, marathoner or just someone who is looking for information on what to do for your nutrition to get maximal performance, my new lesson “Meal Timing for Athletic Performance” is on MemberVault now! Get access today and keep the lesson for life to reference whenever you have a big competition coming up.