Let’s Read the Label – Maltodextrin

read the label

In the course of reading the labels on several different items in the grocery store, one ingredient seemed to appear in a majority of the products we looked at: Maltodextrin.  Since a friend of mine mentioned that she saw this included in the list of things in her protein powder, I decided to start here with our label-reading journey as we explore the various ingredients in the food we eat.

What It Is

Maltodextrin is a food additive that is derived from the starch found in such things as potatoes, corn, and rice.  It is used to add thickness or bulk to certain foods and can be found in everything from salad dressings to gravies and even artificial sweeteners.  It is an inexpensive way for food manufacturers to boost the volume or thickness of a food without altering the taste as maltodextrin has no real flavor of its own.  Some people say there is a slight sweetness to maltodextrin, but it is not prevalent enough to affect the flavor of whatever it is added to.  It is a very attractive product to food manufacturers as it serves many purposes, is inexpensive to produce, and performs a multitude of tasks.

How It’s Made

Maltodextrin is made by a process called hydrolysis.  During this process, water is added to starch followed by certain enzymes.  These enzymes then strip away all of the unwanted materials, such as amino acids and fiber, until what is left is a white powder that dissolves easily in water.  It is manufactured by chemists who can alter the outcome of the hydrolysis depending on the needs of the customer.  Different densities of maltodextrin produce different effects.

What It Does

As far as nutrition goes, maltodextrin has about 4 calories per gram in the form of simple carbohydrates while having virtually no nutritional value.  Your body digests it the same way it digests any other carb and it is used for energy.  Some sports drink contain maltodextrin to supposedly give enhanced performance similar to the way that carb-loading helps some athletes get the energy they need to compete.  The manufacturers of maltodextrin claim that it is harmless and does not cause any problems to diabetics or those who are gluten sensitive.  On the other hand, there are websites where people who are diabetic or gluten sensitive link extreme reactions to the consumption of this substance.

What To Do

So, what is the truth?  Is maltodextrin harmless?  Or is it something we should be cautious about?  In this case, I vote for cautious.  First, a lot of the things used to make this substance are known to be genetically modified.  I try to stay away from those items as much as possible, but corn and rice are high on the list of modified foods and are sometimes used to make maltodextrin.  Second, I am somewhat sensitive to gluten, and I find it better to be safe than sorry.  My friend, who sent me down this path by finding this ingredient in her protein powder, has since stopped using that particular protein powder and has switched to one without it.  She has reported to me that she feels much better now and really thinks it was the maltodextrin that was making her feel so poorly.  Third, if I were diabetic, I would be extra careful.  The fact that your body processes this substance like any other simple carb should caution you that the possibility exists that it could cause blood sugar spikes and rebound hypoglycemia.

Finally, a very real problem with maltodextrin is the lack of nutritional value.  I don’t know about you, but I probably eat enough empty calories on purpose and don’t really need to increase my ingestion with these things that are hidden in our food.  I am not really sure I understand why food manufacturers use maltodextrin; why can’t they just make food out of real food?  I have been cooking for a long time, and I have never found cause to go to my local grocery store and buy a bag of maltodextrin to put in my recipe.  I firmly believe that it is this type of ingredient, empty calories with no nutritional value, that is leading people to eat more, gain weight, and still remain malnourished.  In the long run, I think it is better for all of us is we stick to natural foods, as whole and complete as we can get them.  Our bodies thrive on the nutrients found in unaltered whole foods.  Let’s give our bodies what they want.

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