By Peeyush Maheshwari, PhD, Food Science for

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.

Malt is nostalgically remembered as a cornerstone of American culture, conjuring fond memories of vintage “malt shops” or a delicious glass of Ovaltine™ malted milk. But, what exactly is malt?

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

Malt Extract’s Natural Health Benefits

  • 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. 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: Humans host some 100 trillion microbes with a huge portion residing in our guts. These play an important role in 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 IBS, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. 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 components are 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. Consuming foods rich in antioxidants has been shown to strengthen heart health, support anti-aging, and lower the risk of infection and some forms of cancer.
  • Athletic Recovery: Athletes at all levels are increasingly relying on malt extract-based beverages to replenish and recover. 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. Additionally, research shows its high antioxidant content may reduce exercise-induced inflammation for improved recovery.

Companies such as Malt Products Corporation provide all natural, non-GMO certified malt extracts and an array of other natural sweeteners to leading manufacturers across the nation, including those in the bakery, confectionary, beverage, snack food, and cereal markets. Whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or simply a health-conscious individual, foods containing malt extract can add value to your nutritious diet.