This article is written by Rawvelo ambassador Ben Turner. Ben is an MNU-certified evidence-based Nutritionist, seasoned ultra-endurance athlete and runs The Adventure Coach – a health, fitness, mindset, and skillset coaching service for ordinary people looking to do extraordinary things.
The article takes a closer look at maltodextrin - an ingredient found in a large number of sports nutrition brand products but one that we, at Rawvelo, have actively worked to avoid using due to the side effects and potential long term damage.
Ben explores the topic in more detail.
With many varieties of sports gels, supplements and powders across the market, it’s often hard to understand the perceived differences and benefits of various brands. There are countless options out there with a variety of ingredients and several taglines that seemingly make them stand out. But, what about the rumours and claims surrounding certain sugars? And what about the taglines used by brands that simply highlight that their products don’t cause gastrointestinal (GI) distress?
In this article, we will dive into what this GI distress is, and what causes it by doing a deep dive into maltodextrin, one of the most common, cheapest, and overused sports carbohydrate sources on the market.
What is maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is a highly processed polysaccharide (made of multiple sugar molecules) carbohydrate derived from plants, usually from corn, wheat, rice or potato starch. This substance’s processing breaks it down into its simplest carbohydrate form, leaving behind a white powder with a high glycaemic index, and a common additive to processed foods and sports nutrition supplements. It's cheap, hyper-processed, and can be the cause behind a lot of undue trips to the bushes on race day!
What is the nutritional value of maltodextrin?
Being a carbohydrate in its simplest form, maltodextrin contains 4 kcals per gram. Unlike complex carbohydrates such as oats and potatoes, it contains no other nutritional value other than pure and simple carbohydrates. For daily consumption, it is ill-advised to consume on a regular basis due to the nature of spiking blood sugar with no other nutritional value. In sports nutrition, however, simple carbs are rocket fuel for the athlete, and of these, there are certainly some that trump others.
Concerning sports nutrition, athletes will want to aim for a higher intake of carbohydrates (depending on the exercise, intensity, and duration) from more simple forms, reducing fibre intake and the gastric load that comes with more complex food sources. The simpler the better as it allows the body to break down and process this energy for exercise more quickly. This is its simplest form is the difference between the healthy human diet, and that required acutely around specific training sessions and races.
GI distress in sports
GI issues can be a common issue for athletes that ultimately prevent them from winning or finishing a race, with the causes behind this distress usually mechanical (through movement), ischemic (blood and oxygen flow), or nutritional. Nutritional issues of GI distress stem from several potential causes including digestive system training, and high hyperosmolar carbohydrates (such as gels and carb drinks).
This is not to say that high carbohydrate intake is bad, in fact, the plethora of current empirical research recommends a high carbohydrate intake for most moderate to high-intensity bouts of exercise and sports. This should be part of a comprehensive nutritional strategy for the athlete, but the underlying principle here is that carbohydrates are a key preferred fuel source.
Athletes are strongly recommended to train their digestive system with the fuelling strategy of choice. Toeing the start line having not done this with a high carbohydrate strategy is likely to lead to significant GI distress and is certainly not advised. Training the gut is simply the practice of training with high-carb food sources and understanding what works for you and what does not.
What are the pros of maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is cheap, it’s a simple carbohydrate source that will spike blood sugar in the same way as other glucose carbohydrate sources. This spike is useful in certain sports nutrition cases as it replenishes your glycogen stores and gives you immediate energy during bouts of moderate to high-intensity exercise. One study suggests maltodextrin is beneficial in preventing the anaerobic power decrease during sprint tests (1). There is more research required in this area, and it is highly likely that this effect will come from carbohydrate consumption in any simple form around exercise (both before and after) and not maltodextrin alone. Maltodextrin also does not use as much water as other carbohydrate sources when digested or stored and is therefore likely to reduce dehydration effects during consumption.
What are the cons of maltodextrin?
There are several better options out there for fuelling than maltodextrin. Being hyper-processed, and one of the cheapest additions for numerous companies to use, why settle for the bottom of the pile?
Speaking of piles… It is likely that you have heard of the rumours of gastrointestinal stress associated with maltodextrin, so, let’s investigate the research.
Studies have shown that in athletes with previous or current symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), maltodextrin can exacerbate symptoms and impair the antibacterial and defence mechanisms of the gut (2). Other studies have shown that maltodextrin may promote intestinal inflammation (3), leading to the onset of IBS and chronic IBD symptoms. Combined with the mechanical movement of running, and the potential reliance on maltodextrin-containing high-carbohydrate food sources, you have the recipe for an unpleasant and detrimental experience and the risk of long-term bowel and gut health issues.
Empirical research suggests that carbohydrate intake should be combined for maximum effectiveness. There are ceilings to carbohydrate absorption, generally, that’s 60g of glucose per hour, but when combined with 30g of fructose, you can absorb and utilise up to 90g of carbohydrates per hour (4). Realistically speaking, this is a lot of carbs to digest at one time, especially when using a whole-foods approach to sports nutrition. This is where gels can be highly beneficial and part of a race strategy that has been tried and tested throughout your training. Maltodextrin is derived from glucose and therefore is limited to 60g per hour.
What is the best option?
The preponderance of research backs up the use of carbohydrates as a primary and preferred fuel source for moderate to high-intensity sports (5). However, it is highly recommended that your fuelling strategy is NOT dominated by maltodextrin products, gels and highly processed sugars, which are cheap, overly processed, and could promote long-term gut and bowel issues. The inherent risks of maltodextrin present a strong argument against its chronic use, finding alternatives that are high in glucose and potentially with added fructose to benefit from dual pathway carbohydrate fuelling (up to 60g glucose and 30g fructose per hour) (6).
Research aside, realistically, consuming 90g of carbs per hour is a lot, and it’s a lot to gain from whole food sources as well (that’s an entire fruit malt loaf every hour!). Gels and sports supplements should make up PART of your nutrition strategy, allowing for whole foods and other food or drink sources to ensure a minimal negative impact on your gut. Maltodextrin is not an ideal addition to your nutrition strategy as the cons outweigh the pros and risking long-term gut bacteria damage and potential irritable bowel disease leaves the message clear.
The bottom line and my advice
There are much better options than maltodextrin in your sports nutrition strategy and try to eliminate its consumption in your daily nutrition. Much like you wouldn't default to the cheapest food for a multi million pound racehorse, there are far better options on the market for your race and training strategy. So treat yourself like the racehorse you are, and make the investment in your strategy and knowledge to bring out your best.
With the inherent risk of developing intestinal inflammation, IBS and IBD symptoms and a significant risk to those who already have IBS or IBD symptoms, associated with maltodextrin, my recommendations are clear. Look towards a multifaceted approach, combining glucose and fructose through gels, bars and whole foods for optimal longevity and performance in your sport.
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- Khorshidi-Hosseini M, Nakhostin-Roohi B. Effect of glutamine and maltodextrin acute supplementation on anaerobic power. Asian J Sports Med. 2013 Jun;4(2):131-6. doi: 10.5812/asjsm.34495. Epub 2013 Feb 13. PMID: 23802055; PMCID: PMC3690733.
- Nickerson KP, Chanin R, McDonald C. Deregulation of intestinal anti-microbial defense by the dietary additive, maltodextrin. Gut Microbes. 2015;6(1):78-83. doi: 10.1080/19490976.2015.1005477. PMID: 25738413; PMCID: PMC4615306.
- Arnold AR, Chassaing B. Maltodextrin, Modern Stressor of the Intestinal Environment. Cell Mol Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2019;7(2):475-476. doi: 10.1016/j.jcmgh.2018.09.014. Epub 2018 Oct 17. PMID: 30827413; PMCID: PMC6409436.
- Jeukendrup AE. Carbohydrate and exercise performance: the role of multiple transportable carbohydrates. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2010 Jul;13(4):452-7. doi: 10.1097/MCO.0b013e328339de9f. PMID: 20574242.
- Burke LM, Hawley JA, Wong SH, Jeukendrup AE. Carbohydrates for training and competition. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S17-27. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2011.585473. Epub 2011 Jun 9. PMID: 21660838.
- de Oliveira EP, Burini RC. Carbohydrate-dependent, exercise-induced gastrointestinal distress. Nutrients. 2014 Oct 13;6(10):4191-9. doi: 10.3390/nu6104191. PMID: 25314645; PMCID: PMC4210913.