By Jillian Greaves for EmaxHealth

While the origin of malt can be traced back to early Egyptians, the full health value of this “forgotten ingredient” is often overlooked and underappreciated. As Americans drive the surging “Plant-based Nutrition” movement – including a recent Innova Market Insights study that found 39% of Americans are eating more fruits and vegetables – malt is a resounding reminder that sometimes our ancestors truly do know best.

Of course, malt wasn’t always out of vogue. It is nostalgically remembered as a cornerstone of American culture, conjuring fond memories of vintage “malt shops” or a delicious glass of Ovaltine™ malted milk (A Christmas Story, anyone?). Ovaltine was first registered as a trademark in 1906 by Dr. Albert Wander, who with his father Dr. Georg Wander, spent their lives working with malted barley extracts as nutritious food supplements.

However, the health benefits of barley and malt extract are, quite literally, historic. Roman gladiators, also known as hordearii, or “Barley Men,” are said to have owed their peak physical condition to a predominately vegan diet of beans and barley.

But what exactly is malt?

Basically, malt is sprouted barley. By sprouting the barley, the grain’s enzymes are unlocked with only water and heat in a natural and ancient (6,000 years ancient) process that releases the whole grain’s nutritional power. Malt can be further processed to produce malt extracts that are used in beverages (beer, malted shakes, energy drinks), baked goods (cakes, pretzels, breads), cereals and snacks (protein bars, yogurts, confections), and other foods.

As mainstream consumers increasingly seek foods with functional ingredients, many brands are turning to natural, less processed, plant-based sweeteners, such as malt. As a result, the global malt ingredients market is expected to expand at a CAGR of 4.7% by 2024.

With no signs of slowing down, the popularity of plant-based nutrition extends beyond the obvious vegan and vegetarian groups. The trend is actually fueled primarily by mainstream consumers who, in skewing toward more plant-based foods, are striving for a healthy and sustainable balance between meat and vegetables rather than adopting an all-or-nothing way of eating, including incorporating quality, minimally-processed, functional ingredients.

All health-minded consumers seeking to enhance their diets can benefit from malt consumption in numerous ways, including the following key health benefits:

• Athletic Recovery: Athletes at all levels are increasingly relying on malt extract-based beverages to replenish and recover, with over 40% of the sports nutrition market growth due to new products with a plant-based claim. Recent studies have shown that athletes may benefit from consuming malt, as it provides synergistic compounds that support energy and enhance post-workout recovery. After exercise, malt extract was found to improve both the sugar and lactic acid blood levels in athletes. Additionally, research has shown that the high antioxidant content of malt may reduce exercise-induced inflammation for improved recovery. Thus, the energy and recovery properties of malt-based nutrition drinks may be an excellent alternative to other sports beverages that contain high amounts of table sugar.

• Boosts Happiness: Malt extract may make you happy! Malt extract contains hordenine, a plant-based, naturally occurring compound that, in scientific studies, has been found to lift your spirits by stimulating the brain’s pleasure sensors. Hordenine was shown to activate the dopamine D2 receptor, the brain’s reward center, which causes this “feel-good” effect. Hordenine also has been reported to improve athletic performance and increase blood flow. Additionally, hordenine promotes a metabolic interaction with the adrenal system, which produces bountiful mental energy as well as enhanced alertness and focus.

• Sweetener with Substance: Malt extract is not an empty sugar. When used as a sweetener, malt extract is a functional ingredient that serves as a source of antioxidants, essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals, and is made from whole grains. As an added benefit, malt extract has a significantly lower glycemic index than table sugar. Malt’s glycemic index is around 40, while white sugar clocks in around 65.

• Supports Digestive Health: The human body hosts some 100 trillion (yes, with a “T!”) microbes. A huge portion of these microbes – as much as a full pound or two – reside in our guts. The bacteria in our gutss play an important role in human health, including the biosynthesis of vitamins and essential amino acids and supporting systemic immunity. Recent studies demonstrate that supporting gut microbial balance and activity can help modulate our risk for diseases including IBS, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.

Simply put, malt extract can be good for your gut. Functioning as the preferred base for fermented beverages and foods, malt is a viable proponent for digestive health. Studies show malt extract can optimally facilitate the growth of probiotic cultures that can enhance digestive health by maintaining the balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

• Promotes Heart Health: Malt extract is shown to reduce the risk of heart problems. A heart healthy mix, malt extract contains, potassium, folate, and vitamin B6, which together can decrease the risk of cardiac disease. Studies have shown that consuming foods rich in antioxidants provide a wealth of health benefits, including promoted heart health.

• Antioxidants Galore: Malt extract packs more than 5 times the antioxidant power of fresh broccoli and nearly 50 percent more than blueberries. It is an abundant source of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, dietary silicon (supports bone health), B vitamins and minerals. Specifically, malt contains significant quantities of vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6. Malt also offers consumers rich amounts of critical minerals like iron, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc.

Consuming foods rich in antioxidants has been shown to strengthen heart health, support anti-aging, and lower the risk of infection and some types of cancer. Interestingly, a 2017 study reported that malt barley extracts can cause the death of cancer cells due to the increase in intracellular reactive oxygen species production.

Companies such as Malt Products Corporation provide all natural, non-GMO certified malt extracts and an array of other natural sweeteners leading manufacturers across the nation, including those in the bakery, confectionary, beverage, snack food, and cereal markets. With the plant-based movement continuing to flourish, foods containing plant-derived ingredients, such as malt extract, are sure to become increasingly popular as companies mobilize to meet demand. Whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or simply a health-conscious consumer, foods containing malt extract can add value to your nutritious diet.

Jillian Greaves, MPH, RD, LDN, a Registered Dietitian with a strong foundation in nutritional science and deep understanding of the relationship between food, body and mind, holds a Bachelor of Science in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from UMass Amherst, and a Master of Public Health Nutrition from Tufts University. She completed her internship at the University of Michigan, gaining experience in medical nutrition therapy, food service management and community nutrition, and worked in clinical nutrition research at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. Learn more at: Prevention Pantry. Follow Jillian on Instagram at @preventionpantry.