Maltodextrin is a starch-derived food additive that is commonly used as a thickening or filling agent in a range of commercial foods and beverages. It is nearly tasteless but is often described as being slightly sweet. Most nutritional experts consider the substance to have basically a “zero sum” content, which means that it contains very little in the way of calories, vitamins, or other nutrients. It is mostly used to bulk products up and to improve their texture and appearance.
Use as a Thickener
One of the most common uses of maltodextrin is as a food additive, where it's used to thicken products. Its virtually tasteless and colorless character makes it an easy — and inexpensive — way to “bulk up” foods like oatmeal, salad dressings, and commercial sauces. Since it doesn't really have any nutritional value, it is often criticized as being something of an “empty” additive. In nearly all cases, the same thickening could be achieved through other, often more wholesome means, but adding the processed powder is a shortcut favored by commercial food preparers all over the world as a way to lessen costs and improve volume.
Use as a Filler
The compound is also frequently used as a filler in products like sugar substitutes. The white powder often blends right in, and it can stretch the quantity of an item without impacting its taste. On its own, the powder often looks a lot like sugar, so blending in a few scoops is a common way of selling less for more. Maltodextrin is almost always less expensive to produce than more natural sugar substitutes.
A number of pharmaceutical companies also use the compound as a filler in pills and capsules. This is not usually done to stretch the amount of drugs, but rather to stabilize them. Packing active compounds in maltodextrin can suspend their potency and keep them firmly lodged inside of gel capsules without altering them or degrading them over time, the way sugar or other additives might.
Popularity in Brewing
Beer brewers may incorporate a bit of the processed powder into kegs as they age in order to improve the mouthfeel of the resulting draught or ale. The goal here is to make the beer seem heavier and more substantial without increasing its alcohol content or yeast levels.
Benefits for Athletes
The body digests maltodextrin as a simple carbohydrate, which means that it is easily converted to quick energy. Athletes often love the compound for this reason, and it is an ingredient in many sports drinks. Endurance athletes sometimes also purchase it in small packs that they will add to their water bottles mid-workout for a quick boost.
Making maltodextrin is often a somewhat complex undertaking. Chemists usually begin with a natural starch; potato is a common example, but corn, wheat, and barley can also be used. The starch must be reduced to its basic components, usually by combining it with water in a process called hydrolysis. An enzyme is then used to break it down even further by stripping away proteins and other elements. The result is a white powder that is virtually tasteless and will dissolve quickly in water. It carries the molecular formula C6nH(10n+2)O(5n+1).
Dextrose Equivalent Values
Part of what makes the manufacturing process so challenging is how variable it is: chemists can often alter the composition of the powder depending on how long they allow the basic starches to interact with the activating enzymes, as well as how much time they set aside for hydrolysis in the first place. Maltodextrins are typically assigned a dextrose equivalency value as a way to distinguish them based on processing time. Those that are very highly processed typically have a low equivalency value, while those that are less processed tend to have higher numbers.
Dextrose is a type of sugar, but even high equivalency values do not necessarily lead to sweetness. The values are usually related primarily to chemical structure, and manufacturers will seek out compounds with high or low equivalencies depending on what exactly is being produced. For example, maltodextrins with high dextrose values are more soluble and freeze better; they are common in products like ice creams and frozen prepared foods. Those with low values tend to be stickier, making them a good choice for more gelatinous products like jams and syrups.
Health Concerns and Issues
Most maltodextrin is considered gluten free, even when it is made from wheat or barley. This is because the refining process is so severe that nearly all glutinous elements are stripped away. Even still, people who have wheat sensitivities or who suffer from conditions like Celiac disease that are aggravated by gluten might want to avoid this thickener unless they are absolutely certain it contains no problematic substances.
The additive is has virtually no nutrients, though it does contain some calories — approximately 4 per gram. It is not usually considered to be a true sugar, either. Most governments and regulatory bodies will allow maltodextrin-containing foods to be labeled “sugar free,” as the dextrose compound is not usually considered a dietary sugar under most food legislation. This usually has to do with the way the compound is digested and processed. As a result, dextrose-containing foods and beverages are usually considered safe for diabetics and others with sugar sensitivities.