Maltodextrin is one of the most used ingredients in sports nutrition, but many still don’t know exactly what it is, how it behaves, and why it’s better than other carbohydrate sources.
In this blog, we explain everything you need to know about maltodextrin. So, without further ado, let’s dive deeper into the topic.
What is maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is a white powder made up of glucose molecules linked together in a chain.
It’s made from starch, but we don’t want to bore you with the whole processing mode. All you need to know is that it comes from corn, wheat, or potatoes and then undergoes a processing phase.
The end result is a chain of glucose molecules that’s longer than simple sugars but shorter than starch. So just in the territory sports nutrition wants it.
The length of the chain is so short that the body rapidly breaks it down to glucose molecules during the digestion.
These characteristics make maltodextrin the first choice of sports nutrition manufacturers, as it fulfills all the requirements for an excellent source of carbohydrates during sports exercise.
Is maltodextrin a sugar?
“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”
Sounds reasonable, right? Well, not if you’re maltodextrin.
Maltodextrin behaves like glucose, which is considered a sugar and has the same effects. It is thus made up of the same molecules as sugar but is not considered sugar. That’s why supplements with maltodextrin can (and must) be declared as sugar-free, even though you get the same blood sugar spike as you would by consuming products with glucose and even higher than consuming table sugar.
However, there is one major difference between maltodextrin and other sugars — the taste. Or the lack of it, to be precise.
Maltodextrin has a very bland taste and is not sweet.
Maltodextrin is not sweet. That makes it a popular choice for sports nutrition, where it’s usually combined with fructose, a very sweet ingredient. It gives manufacturers some flexibility to develop tasty, high-carbohydrate products without making the product, such as Nrgy Unit Drink or Nrgy Unit Gel, too sweet and difficult to consume.
One thing to watch out for is the advertising of maltodextrin products as sugar-free. Some manufacturers use maltodextrin as a marketing gimmick, presenting the product as sugar-free and then adding artificial sweeteners due to the lack of taste. This way, the product is high in calories but also contains sweeteners that could potentially be negatively affecting health, which ultimately makes it worse than if you would consume a product with sugar.
Why is maltodextrin so popular in sports nutrition?
Take a look at any proper energy gel or isotonic drink, and you’ll find maltodextrin on the ingredient list. It’s one of the most used ingredients in sports nutrition, and there’s a good reason for it.
We already mentioned that lack of taste makes it perfect to combine with fructose, ideally in a 1:0.8 ratio, but that’s only one benefit of it. It’s actually a minor aspect, as it is the absorption properties of maltodextrin that make it popular.
Maltodextrin has a very high glycemic index, meaning it’s quickly broken down into glucose molecules. This allows it to empty quickly from the stomach into the small intestine where it is absorbed into the blood.
This helps you in two ways. First, you’ll get the energy needed in a matter of minutes after the consumption, and second, the ingredients will not stay in the stomach, which usually leads to digestive problems, which unfortunately still affects some athletes who consume products that follow marketing gimmicks instead of science.
Why is maltodextrin better than glucose?
You're probably wondering why maltodextrin is better than glucose when they are such similar ingredients. After all, maltodextrin is made up of glucose — so why not choose glucose instead?
Maltodextrin has more molecules of glucose per molecule than glucose or other simple sugars. This allows more carbohydrates to be compressed into a smaller number of particles. In a solution this translates to a lower osmolarity or osmolality. This way, the water absorption in the small intestine is quicker as compared to pure glucose.
It also isn’t sweet, so a high concentration of carbohydrates is not a problem to consume. Furthermore, this enables easier combination with other carbohydrate sources, which opens a possibility for intake of 90 grams of carbs per hour or even more.
Is Maltodextrin healthy?
One of the main concerns people have with maltodextrin is that it’s supposedly not good for them. That’s true to some degree, but it’s not worse than regular sugar. Everything that gives you energy surplus and raises your blood sugar can do you harm if you consume too much of it.
For a sedentary person, maltodextrin can, like fats or other carbohydrates, present a problem as it gives you an energy surplus. But let us reassure you — athletes struggle with energy deficit rather than energy surplus.
Everything that gives you the energy when you need it, is good for you. So maltodextrin during a workout does not present any risk to your health. However, you might want to reconsider consuming it while lying on the couch watching television.
The problem with maltodextrin is that people tend to drink too much of it due to its lack of taste. They want to get the taste they are familiar with from sugary drinks, so they drink two or three times more than what's recommended. That also means they intake twice as many calories, which can be harmful in the long run.
So it is not maltodextrin that is harmful, but human disobedience and failure to follow instructions.
Maltodextrin emerges as a pivotal ingredient in sports nutrition, offering unique advantages over other carbohydrate sources like glucose.
Its formulation results in a carbohydrate chain that strikes the perfect balance for athletic needs — long enough for sustained energy release but short enough for easy digestion and minimal gastrointestinal distress.
Despite its similarity to sugar in composition and effects, maltodextrin is not a sugar. Still, the high glycemic index makes it a versatile and efficient choice for athletes, as it provides rapid energy availability and can be combined with other carbohydrates for optimal performance.
However, it's crucial to be mindful of its consumption, particularly outside of athletic contexts, as excessive intake can lead to an energy surplus, similar to any other carbohydrate source.
The key takeaway is that maltodextrin, when used appropriately in the context of sports and exercise, can significantly enhance athletic performance without posing health risks.