Whether or not you have any idea what maltodextrin is, there’s a very good chance you’ve consumed some of it in the last 24 hours.

Maltodextrin is commonly spotted hiding near the bottom of ingredient lists of packaged or processed foods. It’s a white, powdery, nearly flavorless starch derived from rice, corn, potatoes, or wheat.

It’s a fast-digesting carbohydrate, and a versatile additive that preserves flavors in processed foods. It also thickens food, mimics fat content, and prolongs shelf life.

To make maltodextrin, starches from these foods are subjected to a process called hydrolysis, in which they’re broken down through chemical reactions with water, aided by additional enzymes and acids.

So, it’s used as a preservative or a food thickener — does this mean it should be avoided at all costs?

Maltodextrin is considered generally safe to eat by the FDA. In fact, maltodextrins are also produced in the intestine when we digest starchy foods. They have the same calorie density as sugars and carbohydrates.

Read on to get the details on this ingredient.

The FDA affirms maltodextrin as a food that’s “generally recognized as safe.”

Maltodextrins are used to replace sugar or fat in many food products such as ice cream, dried instant food formulations, sweets, cereals, snacks, and beverages.

Given that these foods are widely consumed, they may be in your daily diet.

Maltodextrin is considered high on the glycemic index, with a score between 80–120, meaning it raises blood sugar about the same as glucose.

Because it’s found in many processed foods, a diet high in maltodextrin is likely also high in sugar and salt, and low in fiber. Such a diet can lead to weight gain, higher levels of cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes.

It’s always better to start with the bad news — that way it can only get better. Here are some potential concerns about maltodextrin:

Genetically-modified (GM) ingredients

Maltodextrin may be made from corn, and it’s increasingly harder to find corn that hasn’t been genetically modified.

While the FDA insists that GM crops are just as safe as traditional ones, there are some people who feel strongly about avoiding products made from GM corn.

Allergies and intolerances

There may be concerns for those with food sensitivities, particularly those with inflammatory bowel disease. Signs of intolerance to maltodextrin include bloating, cramping, and possible diarrhea.

Gut problems

The gut is a delicate ecosystem of bacteria, and the balance can be upset by what goes in. Some very unwelcome bacteria happen to thrive on maltodextrin and other processed carbohydrates and sugars, including:

  • Salmonella. A study with mice found that high doses of maltodextrin given to mice suppressed their immune system’s ability to fend off this and other bacteria, potentially leading to gastroenteritis.
  • Escherichia coli. Another study found that E. coli thrives on processed foods containing maltodextrin, which scientists believe may contribute to the development of Crohn’s disease and other inflammatory bowel diseases.

Weight gain

Maltodextrin is a carbohydrate, so it has the same waist-expanding properties you’d encounter in a piece of white bread.

It’s generally found in pastas, frozen dinners, cereals, desserts, instant foods — all things to limit for the weight-conscious.

Diabetes and blood sugar spikes

Maltodextrin is the same as table sugar on the glycemic index, which means eating an excess can cause a spike in blood sugar.

So, although it’s tolerable in low doses, those with diabetes should try to limit those processed snack foods where maltodextrins are common.

Any of the following symptoms after eating a food containing maltodextrin could point to higher blood sugar levels:

  • quickened pulse
  • dry mouth
  • nausea and vomiting
  • difficulty breathing
  • stomach discomfort
  • fruit-scented breath
  • frequent urination
  • fatigue
  • thirstiness

In a nutshell, limiting processed foods and eating more whole foods with higher fiber content is the way to go.

Here’s a view of its good angle, under just the right light. Redeeming qualities of maltodextrin include:

It’s gluten-free

Most maltodextrin is derived from corn, but even versions derived from wheat are normally gluten-free, since the gluten is removed during the manufacturing process.

It aids exercise

Think of this as the upside of maltodextrin’s high glycemic index score.

Studies have shown that fast-digesting carbs like maltodextrin help to quickly replenish your stores of glycogen — a form of glucose stored in the muscles that acts as a reserve energy supply if blood glucose is depleted.

This means it’s effective for recovering endurance after or between workouts.

It manages chronic hypoglycemia

Once again, maltodextrin’s high glycemic index comes to the rescue! Those with chronic hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can use it to quickly raise blood sugar in a pinch.

It may fight colorectal cancer

A 2015 study found that a digestion-resistant form of maltodextrin called Fibersol-2 was effective at significantly inhibiting human colorectal tumor cell growth.

There are two theories for why this is so — it may be that bacterial fermentation caused by the presence of the maltodextrin is responsible, and it may be due to improvements in digestion attributed to maltodextrin (see below).

It improves digestion

Research also shows that digestion-resistant maltodextrin helps to relieve constipation and support regular bowel function — it generally keeps things moving.

It’s also listed as an ingredient in popular fiber supplements Metamucil and Citrucel.

This may seem contradictory, given the previously-mentioned research linking maltodextrin to bowel disease, but the concerns lie mostly with the easily digested form of maltodextrin.

Again, maltodextrin is added to foods in order to:

  • preserve flavor
  • extend shelf life
  • add thickness or texture

Some common foods that may include maltodextrin are:

  • soups
  • salad dressings
  • pasta
  • frozen meals
  • vegetarian meat substitutes
  • artificial sweeteners
  • candy and sweets
  • energy drinks
  • baked goods
  • cereals
  • instant dried food products

It’s even found in non-food products such as:

  • lotions
  • hair products
  • cosmetics

Many other additives exist with properties similar to maltodextrin, most of which are considered safe unless you’re sensitive to sugar alcohols.

Some alternatives include:

  • Guar gum. A low-calorie binding agent made from guar beans.
  • Pectin. A thickening substance that can be extracted from a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.
  • Tapioca starch. A gluten-free thickener extracted from the cassava root.
  • Arrowroot powder. A grain-free, gluten-free starch derived from the roots of a tropical plant, favored by adherents of the paleo diet.
  • Sugar alcohols. These both thicken and sweeten food. They contain between one half and two thirds the calories of regular sugar, but they can still raise blood sugar. Those with sensitivity to sugar alcohols may experience bloating and diarrhea. It’s confusing because foods that contain these sweeteners can be labeled “sugar free” because they often replace sucrose and other sugars.
  • Stevia. A nearly calorie-free sweetener made from the leaves of a plant in the aster family. Stevia products contain small amounts of maltodextrin as a carrier for the sweetening agent.

Many things in life have pros and cons, and maltodextrin is no exception. But it’s generally a good idea to avoid many of the processed foods it’s found in, for reasons beyond maltodextrin content.

Whether you choose to consume it, include it as a digestive aid, or use it to pump up your athletic endurance, is a good topic of discussion with your doctor or nutritionist.