Maltodextrin is a food additive that is commonly used as a thickener, filler, binder, or preservative. It is derived from starch and is highly processed. Maltodextrin is prevalent in many packaged foods, especially processed and junk foods. For people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, there has been some debate around whether maltodextrin is safe to consume.
What is maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is a polysaccharide (complex carbohydrate) that is derived from starch. To make maltodextrin, the starch is first cooked and then acid or enzymes are used to break it down further. This process of partial hydrolysis results in a white powder that is soluble, easily digestible, and has almost no flavor.
Maltodextrin can come from different starch sources such as corn, potato, rice, cassava, and wheat. The most common source in processed foods is corn in the United States and wheat in Europe. Maltodextrin itself is not sweet, but it can be combined with artificial sweeteners to enhance sweetness.
In processed foods, maltodextrin is used as an additive because it is inexpensive, has a long shelf life, and is very versatile. Some of its functions include:
- Thickener – increases viscosity of liquids
- Filler – bulks up volume cheaply
- Binder – helps bind ingredients together
- Preservative – helps maintain shelf life
- Sweetener carrier – enhances sweetness when combined with artificial sweeteners
- Coating – provides crispness or crunch to coatings
On an ingredient label, maltodextrin may also be listed as “modified food starch.” It is extremely common in packaged snack foods, candy, cereal, sauces, frozen meals, and drink powders.
Is maltodextrin gluten free?
Whether maltodextrin contains gluten depends on the original starch source that it is derived from. Maltodextrin made from wheat contains gluten. Maltodextrin derived from corn, potato, cassava, or rice starch does not contain gluten.
In the United States, maltodextrin is most often made from genetically modified corn and is gluten-free. However, there is still a theoretical chance of cross-contamination if it is processed on shared equipment with gluten-containing ingredients.
In Europe, maltodextrin can be derived from wheat starch, which means it contains gluten. Even if the ingredients say “wheat” maltodextrin, it still may be highly processed enough to test below 20 ppm for gluten.
So while maltodextrin is generally regarded as gluten-free, there are some exceptions to be aware of:
- Maltodextrin derived directly from wheat will contain gluten
- In the U.S., maltodextrin has a small chance of gluten cross-contamination
- In Europe, maltodextrin frequently comes from wheat starch
- Lab testing may still show gluten under 20 ppm in wheat maltodextrin
To know for certain if a maltodextrin contains gluten, you need to contact the manufacturer and ask about the starch source. When in doubt, avoid maltodextrin derived from wheat.
Can celiacs tolerate maltodextrin from corn or rice?
For people with celiac disease, there is ongoing debate about whether maltodextrin derived from gluten-free starch is tolerable. Some celiacs report reacting negatively while others seem to handle it without issue.
Part of the uncertainty is because maltodextrin is highly processed. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows maltodextrin to contain up to 20 parts per million of gluten before it can no longer be labelled as gluten-free. This is the same cut-off that applies to all foods certified gluten-free.
20 ppm is generally recognized as safe for the majority of celiacs. However, some experts argue that such highly processed gluten may still trigger symptoms or small intestine damage, even if under this threshold.
While there are no large human studies on maltodextrin itself, there is some evidence relating to gluten immunogenicity and hydrolyzed wheat:
- One study found modern hydrolyzed wheat gluten is not immunotoxic, even though unprocessed wheat gluten is.
- Another study showed celiac antibodies still recognize hydrolyzed gluten proteins.
- Researchers note more study is needed in specific populations like celiac patients.
So while hydrolyzed gluten seems less reactive overall, there is conflicting data on whether all immunogenic activity is gone. More research on maltodextrin effects in celiacs is needed.
Anecdotal reports from celiacs
Subjectively, celiacs seem split when self-reporting how maltodextrin affects them:
- Some celiacs say maltodextrin causes them noticeable gluten reactions.
- Others report tolerating maltodextrin just fine with no symptoms.
- There are also celiacs unsure if subtle symptoms are related to maltodextrin or other factors.
While anecdotal, these mixed experiences suggest celiacs react differently on an individual level. Some may be more sensitive and reactive to residual gluten in maltodextrin than others.
Should celiacs avoid maltodextrin to be safe?
Given the uncertainty around maltodextrin, many celiacs choose to avoid it to be cautious. This is a reasonable approach, since maltodextrin is not nutritionally necessary. Other reasons celiacs may want to avoid it include:
- Maltodextrin’s gluten content is unclear and labeling may be inaccurate
- It’s highly processed and the manufacturing process could vary
- There could be cross-contamination, especially in the U.S.
- Research is conflicted on whether it may cause immunogenic reaction
- Anecdotal reports from celiacs are mixed
- It provides no nutritional value
- It’s added to many processed “junk” foods
Avoiding maltodextrin can be challenging since it is added to so many products. But with careful label reading, it is possible to identify maltodextrin and choose substitutes. Many whole, nutrient-dense gluten-free foods don’t contain added maltodextrin.
Alternatives to maltodextrin for celiacs
For celiacs and those avoiding maltodextrin, there are some good substitutes to consider:
|Thickener, binder, emulsifier
|Thickener, binder, dusting
Many of these substitutes provide bonus nutrients like protein, fiber, and healthy fats. And they avoid the potential risks of maltodextrin for sensitive celiacs.
Is maltodextrin considered processed food?
Maltodextrin itself is highly processed, being far removed from the original starch source. The production process involves cooking, acid/enzymes, and drying to create a powder.
Maltodextrin is also commonly found in other highly processed foods. It is added to many convenience foods to improve texture and shelf-life. Examples include:
- Snack foods – chips, crackers, granola bars
- Candy – chocolate, hard candy
- Cereals – instant oatmeal, sugary kids cereals
- Sauces – salad dressing, ketchup, mayo
- Frozen meals – ready meals, pizza, burritos
- Baked goods – cookies, cakes, muffins, donuts
- Drink powders – flavored drink mix, protein powders
Checking labels on packaged, processed foods reveals maltodextrin is almost omnipresent as an additive. It ends up being consumed frequently by the average person eating a Western diet high in processed foods.
Is maltodextrin bad for you?
For the general population, maltodextrin is considered safe by regulatory agencies like the FDA. But that doesn’t mean this highly refined additive is good for health and nutrition.
Potential downsides of consuming maltodextrin often:
- Blood sugar spikes – Maltodextrin has a high glycemic index, causing rapid spikes in blood sugar. This can increase risk of insulin resistance.
- Promotes overeating – By spiking blood sugar, maltodextrin encourages food cravings and overeating.
- Obesity risk – Research links consumption of maltodextrin to increased risk of obesity.
- Gut microbiome – Highly processed additives like maltodextrin may disrupt healthy gut bacteria.
- Nutrient devoid – Provides calories without beneficial nutrients.
- Food sensitivities – Some people appear sensitive to maltodextrin and experience reactions.
While not acutely toxic, regularly consuming maltodextrin from processed foods may contribute to chronic health conditions. The risks depend somewhat on the amount and frequency of consumption.
How much maltodextrin is safe to consume daily?
There is no official safety limit set for maltodextrin consumption. Given how widely it’s used in packaged foods, many people ingest it daily.
The FDA considers maltodextrin Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). But this doesn’t factor in potential long-term impacts:
- Average intake has increased substantially as use in processed foods has expanded.
- Those on a Western diet heavy in packaged foods likely consume it frequently.
- Some mouse studies use amounts equivalent to human intakes of 100 grams per day without short-term harm.
However, there are reasons to minimize intake of added maltodextrin:
- It may cause impaired glucose tolerance and insulin resistance at higher intakes.
- There are links between maltodextrin consumption and higher obesity risk.
- It offers no nutritional value beyond calories.
Based on the human research, keeping maltodextrin intake to under 50 grams per day may be prudent for general health:
- Amounts of 25 – 50 grams are common in those frequently eating packaged foods.
- Lower end of range consumed in human trials showing metabolic effects.
- Limiting added sugars and sweeteners provides other benefits.
For those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it may be wise to avoid maltodextrin altogether. Even small amounts could potentially trigger symptoms or immune activation in sensitive individuals.
Maltodextrin is a widely used food additive derived from starchy crops like corn, wheat, or potato. For celiacs, maltodextrin from gluten sources is clearly unsafe. But there is ongoing debate about whether maltodextrin made from gluten-free starch is tolerable.
The processing it undergoes likely removes most gluten protein, but testing methods are limited. There are also risks of cross-contamination during manufacturing and reports of reactions in sensitive celiacs.
While more research is needed, avoiding maltodextrin appears a wise precaution for celiacs. This highly processed additive provides little nutritional benefit, yet still may present risks. Reading labels and selecting less processed, naturally gluten-free foods can help identify and reduce sources of maltodextrin.