Cooking Down Maltodextrin

In my business of sweetener safety, maltodextrin is a word that comes up a lot. It is found everywhere, and to be perfectly honest, it is commonly found in all forms of sweeteners; the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Maltodextrin is considered a mildly sweet polysaccharide, or a sweet starch. Maltodextrin can be derived from any starch, but in the US, it is usually made from rice, corn, or potato starch, and is produced by cooking down the starch. During the cooking process, which is often referred to as a hydrolysis of starch, its own natural enzymes and acids help to break down the high starch content. The end result is a simple carb white powder that contains roughly four calories per gram, and extremely small amounts of fiber, fat, and protein.

Maltodextrin can be either moderately sweet to really having hardly any flavor at all. Maltodextrin more accurately means a family of products, not a single distinct ingredient. It is usually found as a creamy-white powder, and is supposed to be easily digestible, but it is absorbed as rapidly as glucose. Actually, maltodextrin is a short chain of linked glucose molecules, and is manufactured by regulating the hydrolysis of starch.

Today, commercial products that contain maltodextrin list it as an ingredient no matter the original source of the starch; corn, wheat, rice or potato. It is used in a wide array of foods, from canned fruits to snacks, and is used as a filler in the single-serve, table-top packets of the common artificial sweeteners.

Most all starches are insoluble in water. They can be digested by hydrolysis and by digestive enzymes called amylases, which break the bonds. Humans and other animals naturally have amylases, so they can digest starches. Potato, rice, wheat, and maize are major sources of starch in the human diet. Hydrolysis is a term used to describe the overall process where starch is converted into various sweeteners. Sweetener products made by cornstarch hydrolysis include dextrose, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup, and crystalline fructose.

The use of maltodextrin with other sweeteners serves merely as a filler, but it does add calories to the brands of artificial sweeteners sold. And remember that any food product that has 5 or fewer calories per serving can be labeled as containing "0" calories. So, diabetics must remember to count these starch-based sweeteners (maltodextrin) as part of their carbohydrate consumption since insulin is required for their metabolism, and the artificial sweeteners do have hidden calories from carbs. And remember that maltodextrin is absorbed as rapidly as glucose.

Let's get into the science of maltodextrin for just a brief paragraph or two: The polysaccharides (starches) are considered to be polymers, and this means that monosaccharides result from their processing, and these have been joined together using the elimination of water. Note: "with the elimination of water" - this signals dehydration. This is what makes maltodextrin a handy additive for sugar packets, artificial sweeteners, and products with sugars and/or sweeteners added to them.

Polysaccharides typically form linear or branched chains. They include the storage substances glycogen and starch, and the structural substance cellulose. They are relatively insoluble, typically not sweet, and are considered complex carbohydrates. They are polymers made up of many monosaccharides joined together by glycosidic bonds. They are therefore, very large, often branched, macromolecules. They tend to be a perfect filler for powdered sweeteners and dry goods.

So, is maltodextrin harmful to human health?

Well, it is not a toxin like the methanol in aspartame or the chlorine in Splenda, but maltodextrin is a processed additive, and the less processed elements in your food and drink, the better. Maltodextrin is typically added to many products with other chemical ingredients, and these typically have even more chemicals added for flavor enhancers, colorings, and preservation. So where maltodextrin is found, more chemicals are commonly included. They are in instant puddings, instant breakfast products, some peanut butters, packaged gravies, and other prepackaged products. Highly processed foods typically contain a slew of other chemicals unnecessary for human consumption, such as MSG, which causes an adverse reaction in many people.

Maltodextrin can be derived from any starch, and in the US, this starch is usually rice, corn or potato. In Europe, it is commonly wheat. This is important for persons with Celiac Disease, since the wheat-derived maltodextrin can contain traces of gluten. There have been recent reports of celiac reactions to maltodextrin in the United States, so if you require a gluten-free diet, avoid foods with maltodextrin.

My basic belief is that we are adding far too many chemicals to our foods as fillers, such as maltodextrin. The addition of these manufactured additives are really not necessary to the health of the consumer, and are added primarily for profit in manufacturing. It is always best to avoid products with a list of additives, and I advise purchasing products with as few ingredients as possible. But maltodextrin is not a health danger to those with healthy digestive systems; just try to keep that list of foods to a minimum.

We are naive if we think we can avoid exposure to maltodextrin, and in most cases, it is not a great health concern. But, if you are diabetic or have Celiac Disease, avoid it when possible. There are so many other chemicals we do need to be concerned about; aspartame, sucralose, neotame, MSG, chemical food colorings, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and a growing list of toxic pharmaceuticals. Prioritize your poisons - maltodextrin is at the bottom of my list of toxins for the normal, healthy consumer. Simply read your labels, and modify the amount of maltodextrin you consume.

Posted September 2008 | Permanent Link

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