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We’ve all looked at hundreds of nutritional information labels on packaged food. Calories, carbohydrates, fat, protein – these are all familiar categories to us. Under ‘carbohydrates’ there’s a sub-category called ‘sugars’ – depending on your nutritional goals, the amount of sugar in food is probably the first or second value that you study. Unfortunately, this category is unhelpful, misleading and subject to abuse by the food industry and supplements manufacturers. And one of the biggest and most dangerous culprits is maltodextrin. Let’s explain.
First, let’s clear the confusion between carbs and sugars. All carbs are sugars. End of story. To explain this bold statement, we need to describe the main structural classifications of carbs.
The most basic carbohydrate is a single sugar unit. These are known as monosaccharides and include glucose, fructose and galactose. The next most basic carbohydrate contains two sugar units. These are known as disaccharide and include sucrose (table sugar), lactose and maltose. The combined group of single-unit and double-unit sugars are known as simple carbohydrates. This group of carbs is counted as ‘sugars’ on nutritional labels.
Larger carbohydrates, formed by linking many sugar units together, are known as polysaccharides. This group of long-chain sugars are referred to as complex carbohydrates. Compared to simple carbs, complex carbs must first be broken down into their sugar components. As a result, complex carbs are generally digested and absorbed more slowly by our body.
In summary, all carbs are formed from sugar units. Simple carbs are one or two sugar units; complex carbs are long chains of sugar units. We generally view complex carbs as ‘good’ and sugars as ‘bad’. But what we count as ‘sugars’ on nutritional labels refer to carbohydrates formed from either single-unit or double-unit sugars. To understand why this is unhelpful and misleading, meet maltodextrin.
|Type of Carbohydrate||Structure||Simple or Complex Carb||Sugar or Non-Sugar Classification||Examples|
|Monosaccharide||Single sugar unit||Simple||Sugar||Glucose, fructose (fruit sugars), galactose|
|Disaccharide||Double sugar unit||Simple||Sugar||Sucrose (table sugar), lactose (milk sugars), maltose|
|Polysaccharide||Long chain, multiple sugar units||Complex||Non-sugar||Starch, glycogen, cellulose|
Maltodextrin is an artificial sugar most commonly made from genetically-modified corn. It is used as a thickener, filler and preservative in many processed foods. Structurally, it is a polysaccharide and therefore counted as a complex carbohydrate. And with this loophole, 100 grams of maltodextrin is given nutritional values of 100 grams of carbs and no sugars. Zero sugar! This sounds great. And for this reason, maltodextrin is loved by many food and supplements manufacturers. It is also incredibly cheap – the bulk price for 1kg of maltodextrin is less than Ksh 50.
Let’s start with the glycemic index (GI). This is a measure of how quickly food causes blood sugar levels to rise, with glucose given a standard value of 100. Fructose (fruit sugars) has a GI of 25. Lactose (milk sugars) has a GI of 45. Sucrose (table sugar) has a GI of 65. Maltodextrin is the king of blood sugar spikes with a GI of 110 to 135. This means that maltodextrin, a “complex carb”, causes blood sugars to rise higher and faster than table sugar! Real complex carbs are digested and absorbed slowly; however, maltodextrin is absorbed faster than the most basic sugar unit, glucose.
What are the dangers of consuming large amounts of high-GI carbs? If your body doesn’t have an immediate energy need for that sudden burst of blood sugar it will increase its fat storage.
Maltodextrin is highly processed and, apart from the carbohydrate content, contains no nutritional value. There are no vitamins or minerals to help convert the carbs into energy, which can rob our body of existing nutrients. Research has shown that maltodextrin can suppress the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut and promote harmful bacteria in the intestines.
Maltodextrin is often found in low-quality mass gainers. (Higher quality mass gainers use oats, which has a much lower GI, as the main carb source.) It is also found in energy drinks and gels, and some protein shakes.
At OneProtein, we reviewed four mass gainers – from four popular brands – available to consumers in Kenya. Our discoveries? Firstly, the main carb source, and the only “complex carb”, in all four products was maltodextrin. Secondly, the nutritional labels showed an average of 240 grams of carbs and 24 grams of sugar per serving (the serving sizes ranged from 300-330 grams across the four products). Sounds impressive – all those carbs and not much sugar. Not quite. Loading mass gainers with maltodextrin dramatically lowers the appearance of sugar. But as we’ve seen with the glycemic index, maltodextrin spikes blood sugars much more than table sugar.
The simple question is: would you consume over 240 grams of table sugar in one serving? Probably not. And without an energy release for a 1000-calorie sugar rush, there is only going to be one result: fat gain.
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