What is IMO ingredient?

IMO ingredient, also known as isomaltooligosaccharide, is a type of sugar that is often added to foods and drinks as a prebiotic fiber. Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. IMO has gained popularity in recent years as companies have begun marketing it as a health-promoting additive. But there are some important things to know about this ingredient before consuming it.

What Exactly is IMO?

IMO stands for isomaltooligosaccharide. It is a mixture of short-chain carbohydrates that are linked together in a way that makes them resistant to digestion by human enzymes. Structurally, IMO resembles some types of soluble fiber. However, unlike fiber, IMO is highly processed and derived from starch.

There are a few ways that manufacturers produce IMO commercially:

  • Enzymatic conversion of corn or wheat starch
  • Enzymatic conversion of the disaccharide maltose
  • Using enzymes to rearrange the bonds between glucose molecules in starch

The end product is a white powder that contains a mixture of glucosides with varying chain lengths. Some common forms of IMO used in food products include:

  • Isomaltose
  • Isomaltotriose
  • Isomaltotetraose
  • Isomaltopentaose

IMO can be derived from several starchy sources. But in the U.S., it is most often made from cornstarch due to the widespread availability and low cost of corn.

Is IMO a Prebiotic Fiber?

IMO is often marketed as a prebiotic fiber. Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that support the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. They pass through the small intestine undigested and get fermented when they reach the colon.

Some types of IMO meet the scientific criteria to be classified as prebiotic fibers. However, not all forms function in the same way:

  • Isomaltose tends to be highly digestible, with minimal prebiotic effects.
  • Isomaltotriose and longer IMO chains are less digestible and more likely to function as prebiotics.

Overall, some IMO ingredients appear to act as prebiotics based on clinical studies. But their effects can vary depending on the composition of the specific commercial extract.

Does IMO Have Benefits?

Some potential health benefits have been associated with IMO intake:

  • Increased bowel regularity: IMO may act as a mild laxative by increasing fecal bulk and moisture content.
  • Prebiotic effects: IMO may encourage the growth of beneficial Bifidobacteria species in the colon, which could improve gut health.
  • Blood glucose management: Since IMO is low in digestibility, it results in a lower glycemic response compared to glucose or other fast-digesting carbs.
  • Dental health: Some early research found less dental plaque formation when volunteers consumed mints containing IMO instead of sugar.

However, it’s important to note that human studies on IMO have been fairly limited so far. More research is needed to confirm potential health benefits.

Is IMO Safe?

IMO has generally been considered safe for human consumption based on animal studies showing minimal toxicity. It also has GRAS status, which means it is Generally Recognized as Safe by the FDA.

But there are a few potential side effects to be aware of:

  • Digestive issues: Since IMO is fermented by gut bacteria, consuming too much at once may cause gas, bloating, or diarrhea in sensitive individuals.
  • Allergies: Although uncommon, people with corn or wheat allergies should avoid IMO derived from these sources.
  • Dental decay: Bacteria in the mouth can ferment IMO, so overconsumption may increase cavity risk.

Overall, IMO appears safe for most people when consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet. But those with digestive problems may want to limit their intake to assess personal tolerance.

Is IMO Keto-Friendly?

The ketogenic or “keto” diet restricts carbs to induce ketosis for fast weight loss. Followers of this diet often aim to limit net carbs to 20-50 grams per day.

IMO has fewer calories and carbs than sugar – but it is still a carbohydrate. A 28-gram serving of IMO syrup may provide around 5 grams of net carbs, which can add up quickly.

While small amounts may fit into a keto diet, overdoing IMO intake could easily knock you out of ketosis. It’s best to carefully track servings if following a keto plan.

Is IMO the Same as Sugar Alcohol?

IMO is distinct from sugar alcohols like xylitol, erythritol, and maltitol:

  • Sugar alcohols are derived from the hydrogenation of sugars.
  • IMO is created enzymatically from starch without hydrogenation.
  • Sugar alcohols can cause digestive distress in excess. IMO may be better tolerated.
  • IMO has a milder sweetness and different taste profile than most sugar alcohols.

However, both IMO and sugar alcohols are considered to be lower-calorie sweetener alternatives to sugar.

Where is IMO Found in Foods?

You can find IMO added to a variety of processed foods and beverages, such as:

  • Protein bars and powders
  • Meal replacement shakes
  • Fiber supplements
  • Cereals
  • Baked goods
  • Dairy products
  • Frozen desserts
  • Fructose-free sweets
  • Sugar-free cough drops

It is popular in products marketed for blood sugar control, gut health, or low-carb diets. Always check ingredient labels, as amounts can vary widely.

IMO may also be found in some Asian foods like miso, soy sauce, and rice vinegar naturally. But levels are generally low compared to highly concentrated extracts used in processed Western products.

Is IMO Better Than Sugar?

Here is a comparison of IMO syrup versus regular sugar:

Nutrient IMO Syrup Sugar
Calories 160 per 28g serving 112 per 28g serving
Net Carbs 5g 28g
Sugar 0g 28g
Prebiotic Fiber Potential source None
Glycemic Index Very low 65 (medium-high)

Based on this comparison, IMO has some advantages over regular sugar:

  • Fewer net carbs and no sugar
  • Minimal impact on blood glucose
  • May act as a prebiotic

However, IMO provides nearly the same number of calories as sugar per gram. It is also highly processed and artificial compared to natural sweeteners.

For the biggest health benefits, it is best to satisfy a sweet tooth with whole foods like fruit or small amounts of dark chocolate. But IMO could be a slightly better option than regular sugar or high fructose corn syrup if a sweetener is needed.

Should You Consume IMO?

The potential upsides of IMO include:

  • Low glycemic impact
  • Prebiotic effects
  • Sugar-free sweetness

However, there are also some potential downsides:

  • Highly processed
  • Often derived from GMO corn
  • Possible digestive side effects
  • Limited human research

IMO supplementation is likely unnecessary for most healthy people eating a balanced diet. Whole foods provide an array of prebiotics and fiber without additives.

But for those following specialized diets, counting carbs, or limiting sugar, IMO may offer advantages over traditional sweeteners. Just be mindful of overall consumption and potential for intestinal distress.

As with any food additive, moderation is key until more comprehensive human studies on IMO become available.

The Bottom Line

IMO or isomaltooligosaccharide is a low-calorie sweetener and prebiotic fiber additive used to replace sugar and carbs in processed foods. It may provide blood sugar management benefits and promote beneficial gut bacteria.

However, IMO is highly processed and often derived from GMO corn. Excess intake could cause digestive issues in sensitive people. And there is still minimal human research on its long-term safety and effects.

While IMO appears slightly healthier than regular sugar, it is still best consumed in moderation as part of an overall healthy diet focused on whole foods.

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