Lime & Mint Sports drink, placed next to Perple Bio Bottle and blue track shoes, on red running track.

What’s in a sports drink – the truth about maltodextrin

Look carefully on the label of a standard sports drink and you’ll almost certainly see the ingredient maltodextrin listed. A straw poll that I carried out among a group of club runners reveals that no-one had any idea what it is or whether it is healthy or unhealthy. So, here’s a quick explainer….

What is maltodextrin exactly?

Maltodextrin is a carbohydrate made from corn, rice, potato or wheat starch. It is produced by cooking starch and then adding acids or enzymes to break it down into smaller molecules. The result is a white, flavourless powder.

Maltodextrin is widely used as a bulking or thickening agent in processed foods, such as soft drinks, sports drinks, sauces, instant desserts, dried food, cereals, sweets and snacks.

Is maltodextrin a sugar?

Maltodextrin isn’t a sugar. It is a polysaccharide, which is a type of carbohydrate consisting of short chains of between 3 and 20 sugar molecules.

To put it into context, glucose and fructose consist of a single sugar molecule, sucrose consists of two, while starches comprise hundreds or thousands of sugar molecules. This means that, while technically not a sugar, maltodextrin is closer in structure to sugar than starch.

Why is maltodextrin added to sports drinks?

There are two reasons why maltodextrin is added to sports drinks:

  1. It has a low osmolality compared to sugars. Osmolality is the technical term used to describe the number of solutes (e.g. carbohydrates and electrolytes) within a solution. The more solutes, the higher the osmolality of the drink. Each molecule of maltodextrin contains several glucose units yet still exerts the same osmotic pressure as just one molecule of glucose. So, adding maltodextrin to a drink means a higher concentration of carbohydrate can be achieved (usually between 100 and 200 g/litre) at a lower osmolality relative to glucose. Drinks with a lower osmolality can be emptied from the stomach faster than those with a high osmolality. However, these drinks are only relevant for elite athletes performing high-intensity exercise for 3+ hours. If you are exercising for 1 - 3 hours, a drink with a lower carbohydrate concentration (40 – 80g/ l) is a better option.


  1. It is virtually tasteless, allowing manufacturers to incorporate lots of carbohydrate into a product without making it overly sweet. Sports drinks containing maltodextrin are tasteless unless they have added artificial flavours or sweeteners.
Is maltodextrin unhealthy?

Its man-made. Although it comes from plants maltodextrin is highly processed and has no nutritional value apart from providing energy. It is pure carbohydrate with no fibre, vitamins or minerals.

It has an extremely high glycaemic index (GI). GI is a measure of the speed at which a food or drink results in a rise in blood sugar levels. Maltodextrin has a GI value of 110, the highest GI of any carbohydrate.  By comparison, glucose has a GI of 100, sucrose 65, and fructose 25.

It may cause gut problems if over-consumed. The maximum rate a single carbohydrate source such as maltodextrin can be transported into the blood is 60g/ h. If you consume more, then the drink sits in your intestines, which can lead to symptoms such as bloating, discomfort and diarrhoea. Fructose has a different transporter than glucose, so a drink formulated with multiple carbohydrate sources allows for greater carbohydrate delivery to the muscles during exercise.

It may impair gut health. Research in its early stages suggests that high intakes of maltodextrin may reduce the number of good bacteria and increase the harmful bacteria. This can cause damage to the intestine and increase the risk of chronic inflammation. 

  • Maltodextrin is a manmade carbohydrate that isn’t found in nature but is widely used in sports drinks and processed foods.
  • Maltodextrin has the highest GI of any carbohydrate, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar levels.
  • It is added to sports drinks to increase the carbohydrate content at a relatively low osmolality. However, high-carbohydrate drinks are not relevant for most recreational athletes.
  • Over-consumption of maltodextrin may cause gut problems during high-intensity exercise.

Perple sports drink and Perple endurance mix contain no maltodextrin. They are made with carbohydrate juiced from sweet potatoes, coconuts, brown rice and agave.

Author: Anita Bean

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