The grocery aisles are practically littered with nutrition bars, snacks, and better-for-you desserts that contain the ingredient maltitol. All you have to do is pick up a trendy, “skinnier” ice cream and look at the ingredients listed on the back to see what we mean.
Maltitol is a cheap and easy way for brands to sweeten their products, and drive down the amount of sugar they use, so they can advertise themselves as “low” or “no” sugar.
The potential negatives that come with the sugar substitute are starting to get more buzz (just type in “maltitol side effects” online and tons of articles will pop up), BUT many people have still never heard of it, and if they have, they might not know exactly what it is or, more importantly, why they should care.
What is maltitol:
So what IS maltitol, exactly?
Maltitol is a sugar alcohol that has been artificially processed from starches like corn, essentially by hydrogenating (or adding hydrogen to) starches like corn starch. We know...ew.
Companies often opt for maltitol because it’s an easy sugar substitute that has many of the same properties as sugar, with fewer calories.
There’s just one problem with this: maltitol may not be the best thing for you to ingest. Even though it allows brands to sell a cheaper, lower-sugar bar, it could be worth it for you to spend the extra fifty cents on a bar that doesn't contain the ingredient. Why is that?
Why is maltitol supposedly bad for you?
You guessed it...
1. Indigestion and nausea
The reasons to be concerned about maltitol consumption mostly stem from the fact that maltitol can’t be fully digested in our bodies. That means that it starts to ferment in our gut, and this produces a number of negative effects. After eating maltitol, you might experience:
That bacterial stewing happening in your gut after you eat maltitol causes gas (like that hydrogen) to collect in your body. Gross? Yes.
Seems a little counterintuitive, right? Many of the foods that contain maltitol are foods like protein or fiber bars that people eat because they want to be healthier and, oftentimes, because they are hoping to feel good, slim down and NOT look bloated.
And then there are the other embarrassing side effects, like the noises. Also known as borborygmi, “bubbleguts” are the distracting bubbling sounds your stomach makes when it’s trying to digest certain things. It’s the sound of air uncomfortably moving around in your gut.
Just search people’s reviews of maltitol for horror stories about diarrhea and pain after eating a serving of candies made using maltitol (4). Seriously...it’s pretty shocking.
6. Stomach pain
So most of the stomach issues seem pretty self-explanatory...yikes! Nobody wants to eat a snack and then spend the rest of their day clutching their stomach or trying to drown out the embarrassing gurgling noises and whale sounds issuing from their gastro region. Anything that has a surprise laxative effect could really throw a wrench in the rest of your day. If you have an important meeting, a formal event, or a first date, you probably can’t risk having diarrhea.
7. Higher blood sugar
Foods that score higher on the glycemic index will cause more of a spike, meaning that people who have diabetes or are watching their blood sugar levels will need to monitor for this in foods, even foods that may claim they have a low net carb content.
8. Weight gain
Wait...WEIGHT GAIN?? From a sugar substitute used in “skinnier” snacks and desserts? How is that a thing? Well, this one is actually related to maltitol's glycemic score (see below), but it can potentially affect you even if you don't have diabetes.
Maltitol and your GI score—how does it work and why does it matter?
Chances are, if you're diabetic, you're familiar with the glycemic index, and if you aren’t, you’ve probably heard of it but may have never actually learned about it, even though it affects us all.
The glycemic index is basically a measurement of how different carbohydrates, like sugar, will affect your blood sugar levels.
Even non-diabetic folks will experience unpleasant effects from spikes in blood sugar levels. If you have a blood sugar spike, you could feel hungry again sooner, even though you just ate, and this can lead to weight gain from extra calories munched!
When calculating net carbs, many people will subtract fiber and sugar alcohols from the overall carb content. But maltitol is a sugar alcohol that actually has a (relatively) higher glycemic index, meaning it actually SHOULDN’T be subtracted from the equation.
The glycemic index is designed so that glucose sugar in its pure form scores 100. Regular, processed table sugar (sucrose) comes in at 60. In its syrup form, maltitol scores right up there with processed sugar, at 52! That means that a lot of the negative effects you were trying to avoid by NOT eating sugar might still be there with maltitol. In its powdered form, it scores 35. That’s WAY higher than most sweeteners, (including many artificial sweeteners!!).
To give some reference, another sweetener, erythritol scores only 1 on the GI. Erythritol is also a sugar alcohol (found naturally, for instance, in fruits like grapes, watermelons, and pears!), but unlike maltitol, which is artificially processed, erythritol goes through a natural fermentation process.
[Erythritol is also the easiest of the sugar alcohols to digest. A non-caloric, non-glycemic, non-tooth-decaying, non-carcinogenic antioxidant, it even fights free radicals (those pesky molecules that contribute to the aging process). I mean, is it us, or did we find the perfect sweetener??]
And yet another natural sweetener, stevia, is a zero-calorie, plant-derived ingredient from the stevia herb, and scores a tight 0 on the glycemic index, meaning it has NO glycemic index whatsoever!
(Hint hint: we use both of these sweeteners in our FitJoy protein bars, and NEVER maltitol, because we think a protein bar should fuel you, not fail you!)
So WHY don’t more companies use ingredients like erythritol instead of maltitol? Put simply, erythritol is a more premium ingredient, and companies can buy maltitol in bulk for much, much cheaper. Often, they are betting on the fact that you will never have heard of maltitol anyway and won’t know the difference.
And maltitol is sneaky—it could also be listed as sorbitol, xylitol, or simply “sugar alcohol,” so diabetics and other people trying to watch their net carb intake or blood sugar levels could easily miss it in the ingredients, especially because other sugar alcohols CAN actually be subtracted for the net carb content (meaning, you expect that they won’t raise your GI scores like maltitol). Like we said, super sneaky.
But now that you know, next time you’re in the grocery store, check and see what your snacks and desserts are sweetened with. If they list maltitol, you might want to stay far away.
But if those products are made with safe, premium sweeteners (like erythritol or stevia) that won't spike your blood sugar and make you hungry again right away, you might just have found your sweet spot! Pun intended. Lower-GI ingredients will help control your appetite by helping you feel fuller for longer. They’ll keep you satisfied and give you more sustainable energy to fuel your day.
Also read: Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe to Eat?
All nutritional content has been reviewed by FitJoy's food science expert.
The FitJoy Team
Our team likes to stay in the know and ahead of the game when it comes to eating, exercise, and wellness in general! We take the latest buzz in the nutrition world and make it easily translatable for your own life.