Food Additives, Part 2
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | February 12, 2008

The Newsletter of January 22 began the discussion of food additives by answering your questions about taurine and silicon dioxide. In this Newsletter, I’ll cover dextrose, maltodextrin, and carnauba wax; then I’ll wrap it up and give you the Bottom Line.

This is the commercial name for glucose in crystalline form--in other words, it’s sugar. For the most part, dextrose is derived from corn starch but may also come from rice or wheat, and the source can be important for persons with gluten allergies. Dextrose is used in many food products such as cakes and cookies as a sweetener.

Where dextrose seems to draw attention is when it’s used as a binder in dietary supplements and artificial sweeteners. Why that seems so bad to so many people escapes me. Yes, it’s sugar, but the amount used in dietary supplements is very small--often less than one gram. That means less than two calories from carbohydrates, equivalent to the number of calories burned going up two steps.

Dextrose is also used to add bulk to artificial sweeteners such as Splenda. The reason is that sucralose is highly concentrated. The volume of the sucralose in the packet would be so small, it would difficult to see; dextrose is added for bulk. Again the amount of dextrose is so small, the calories are insignificant. That doesn’t stop the rants from the critics of artificial sweeteners saying people are being deceived. All anyone has to do is read the label --it’s right there and again, it’s less than one gram of carbohydrate.

Put 3 to 19 dextrose molecules in a chain and you have maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is primarily derived from corn, potatoes, wheat, or rice. It’s one of the most natural binders because it’s made from the hydrolysis of starch. While hydrolysis may sound like a scary word, all it means is that water is used to dissolve the starch and the maltodextrin is extracted.

Similar to dextrose, maltodextrin is used in many food products and as binders in dietary supplements. It’s also used as a bulking agent for artificial sweeteners for the same reason as dextrose.

One of the concerns with maltodextrin is that it’s often found in foods that contain monosodium glutamate (MSG). While the claim is that MSG is a neurotoxin with many side effects, there are no consistent data to suggest that this food additive is dangerous (1,2). Repeated attempts to quantify negative reactions in double-blind, placebo-controlled trials have not supported the assertion that MSG should be removed from the food supply.

Carnauba Wax
Waxes are in the category of nutrients that includes lipids and cholesterol. There’s no indication that waxes are not digested and eliminated like any other lipid-like substance. There are also no studies to suggest it has any deleterious health effects.

Carnauba wax is derived from the leaves of a palm tree (Copernicia prunifera) and literally has a thousand uses. People are most familiar with it as a car wax, but it’s been used as a food additive since the turn of the previous century. It’s used in dental floss and disposable cups. Where it seems most unusual is on the label of dietary supplements. Most of the time, the wax is used in the drying drums that dry supplements before packaging to keep them from sticking together. It’s on nutrition labels simply because the tablet touched the wax, which might have left a residue. That’s all.

Bottom Line
We demand convenience. We demand products that provide a benefit in a way that tastes good. And we don’t want to pay much for them. So it doesn’t make sense to criticize the food or supplement industry for trying to meet our demands by using nutrients and chemicals to make their products taste better and last longer, and to provide it at a low price.

Just because someone is allergic to something or might have a negative response doesn’t make a substance bad for everyone. It just means that for some reason--a genetic polymorphism, an immune response unique to the individual, or some other reason--that one person doesn’t process a nutrient or chemical properly. That’s not unreasonable given the trillion cells and hundreds of thousands of unique biochemical processes that go on every second in our bodies.

The only way you’ll ever know whether your body can handle these substances is by trial and error. You know the old joke: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” The doctor answers, “Well, don’t do that.” At the end of the day, that’s the best advice anyone can give.

  1. Walker R and Lupien JR. The safety evaluation of monosodium glutamate. J Nutr. 2000;130(4S Suppl):1049S-52S.

  2. Beyreuther K et al. Consensus meeting: monosodium glutamate--an update. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007;61(3):304-13.
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