Humans have consumed barley for more than 10,000 years. The barley grain, from which malt extract is derived, was a staple of Roman gladiators, called hordearri or “barley-eaters.” Hippocrates and Pliny referenced barley’s health benefits, and its medicinal effects were recognized in African and Asian cultures.
Much more recently, in the early 1900s, malt extract was sold in the U.S. as a tonic for pregnant mothers. In the ensuing decades, malt extract became nostalgically remembered as a cornerstone of American culinary culture, conjuring fond memories of vintage “malt shops,” snacking on chocolate malted milk balls at the movies, and Ovaltine, which uses malt extract as its main ingredient. Today, malt extract is considered the secret to making authentic bagels and pretzels.
However, malt’s complete nutritional properties have only recently been appreciated by nutritional science.
Despite recent pushes to reduce sugar in snacks, not all sugars are created equal. Amid growing scientific consensus, one of the most common types of sugar, fructose, can be toxic to the liver. Maltose is a simple disaccharide sugar consisting of two bonded glucose molecules and contains less than 1% fructose. Many added sugars contain significant amounts of fructose; typical formulations of high fructose corn syrup contain upwards of 50%. Table sugar and even sweeteners that sound healthy, like organic cane syrup, also contain 50% fructose.
Fructose has been implicated in several metabolic disorders due to the way the body processes it, in distinction to glucose.1 Unlike other sugars, fructose is processed in the liver. In addition to obesity, since 1980, concerns have grown about two new conditions linked to fructose consumption from added sugar:
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), characterized by excess fat build-up in the liver;
- Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), characterized by fatty liver, inflammation and “steatosis”—scarring that cuts off blood flow to the liver.
Maltose presents no such dangers. The sugar in malt extract is mostly maltose, which breaks down into glucose and can then be used by virtually every cell in the body. In the brain, glucose is the preferred energy source. Muscle cells import glucose from the blood for a quick energy boost. Certain cells, such as red blood cells, can only use glucose for energy.
But malt extract is more than just maltose. Indeed, malt extract—unlike other refined sweeteners such as table sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, rice syrup or tapioca syrup, not to mention artificial sweeteners like aspartame—is rich in nutrition.2
Malt extract contains protein, essential amino acids, soluble fibers, vitamins B2, B3 and B6, the minerals iron, calcium and potassium and the micro-minerals magnesium, manganese and selenium. Refined sugar and artificial sweeteners contain none of these nutrients.3
While clearly no “empty calorie,” the real nutritional punch of malt extract is found in its complement of antioxidants, in particular polyphenols, which have health benefits including anti-inflammation, anti-tumor, anti-cancer, anti-microbial and anti-allergy.4 Gram for gram, malt extract has five times the antioxidant power of fresh broccoli, as measured by Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) 5.0, in a test submitted to Brunswick Laboratories.
For snack food products, malt extract is truly a sweetener with substance. It has no fructose – the toxic sugar found in sugar cane sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup – and compared to other glucose syrups like rice syrup, corn syrup, wheat syrup and tapioca syrup, it is abundant with nutrients.
To read this article in full check out the Formulating strategies for healthy snacks – digital magazine.
Amy Targan is president of Malt Products Corp., a manufacturer of malted barley extract, oat extract and other natural, nutritious sweeteners.
1 Tappy L, Lê KA. “Metabolic effects of fructose and the worldwide increase in obesity.” Physiol Rev. 2010;90(1):23-46.
2 Phillips KM, Carlsen MH, Blomhoff R. “Total antioxidant content of alternatives to refined sugar.” J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(1):64-71.
3 Carvalho DO, Gonçalves LM, Guido LF. “Overall Antioxidant Properties of Malt and How They Are Influenced by the Individual Constituents of Barley and the Malting Process: Overall antioxidant properties of malt.” Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf. 2016;15(5):doi:10.1111/1541-4337.12218.
4 Cushnie TPT, Lamb AJ. “Antimicrobial Activity of Flavonoids.” Int. J. Antimicrob. Agents. 2005;26:343-356.