Are Maltodextrin and Dextrin Gluten-Free?

Both can be made from wheat, and labeling for them varies

is maltodextrin gluten-free?
Is the maltodextrin in this product safe or not?. © Jane M. Anderson

Question: Are maltodextrin and dextrin gluten-free?

Answer: That depends on the type of starch used to make the maltodextrin or dextrin. 

Maltodextrin, a common food additive, is a type of sugar that’s made by breaking down starch. Once manufactured, maltodextrin is a fine white powder. It can be either neutral in taste or slightly sweet-tasting, and it's used in a variety of processed food products, most notably sodas and candies.

Dextrin, meanwhile, is another common additive that's made by heating starch. Unlike maltodextrin, dextrin is a stickier, gummy ingredient that more often is used as something to bind things together. Different types of dextrins made from different starting materials can be used as ingredients in food coatings (such as in frozen fried chicken), binders for pharmaceutical products, and even as envelope glues.

But Are Maltodextrin and Dextrin Gluten-Free?

As I said above, it depends on the source of the starch. If maltodextrin and dextrin are made from wheat (as they sometimes are), then they might not be safe on the gluten-free diet.

In the United States, maltodextrin is usually made from rice, corn, or potato. In Europe, maltodextrin is frequently made from wheat (so when traveling in Europe or purchasing imported products, be especially careful). Dextrin can come from corn, potato, arrowroot, wheat, rice or tapioca.

Now, both dextrin and maltodextrin are highly processed ingredients, and the amount of gluten protein remaining in them is going to be small — possibly small enough for a product that includes one of them to still meet the legal definition of "gluten-free" (less than 20 parts per million of gluten).

However, many people react to far less gluten than is legally allowed in foods (learn more about this: How Much Gluten Can Make Me Sick?). Therefore, you may want to avoid any food with a wheat-based ingredient, regardless of whether it meets that legal "gluten-free" definition.

Labeling Issues with Maltodextrin and Dextrin

It's commonly believed that food manufacturers — at least in the United States — are required to call out any dextrin or maltodextrin made with wheat by stating "maltodextrin (wheat)" or "dextrin (wheat)" on the label.

However, that's not entirely true. It is true for food products regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which includes most processed food products. But it's not true for food products regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which includes meat and poultry products, plus egg products.

Under the USDA's rules, a company can label wheat-based maltodextrin as plain old "maltodextrin." This is an issue that comes up most often in hams, sausages, bacon and other similarly processed meat products, like deli meats.

The Bottom Line

So what can you do if you want to make sure you're avoiding any wheat-based maltodextrin and dextrin? Here are some steps you can take:

  • Contact the manufacturer of a product you're interested in purchasing and ask about the maltodextrin source.
  • Stick with foods labeled "gluten-free" or certified gluten-free — those companies are more likely to have done the necessary research before putting gluten-free labels on their products.
  • Avoid any food product that looks risky (an obviously imported product with maltodextrin on the label), or where the manufacturer provides an answer that seems a little vague.

(Edited by Jane Anderson)

Sources:

The Sugar Association, Inc. Labeling Terms fact sheet. Accessed Feb. 5, 2016.

GrokFood Online Food Additives Database: U.S. Code of Federal Regulations. For maltodextrin: http://www.grokfood.com/regulations/184.1444.htm. For dextrin: http://www.grokfood.com/regulations/184.1277.htm. Accessed Feb. 5, 2016.

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