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If you’ve ever checked the back of a food package and spotted “dextrose” on the ingredient list, you may be curious about what it is and whether or not it’s healthy.
Unlike many other sugars, dextrose has uses that go far beyond food—it’s also used medically to raise blood sugar rapidly and by bodybuilders or athletes to replenish lost glycogen, increase weight, or gain instantaneous energy.
But what exactly is dextrose, and where does it come from? Let’s take a closer look at what dextrose is, how athletes and people with diabetes use it, and whether dextrose is healthy or not.
Dextrose 101: What Is Dextrose?
Derived from corn starch, rice, or wheat, dextrose is a simple sugar chemically identical to glucose, the sugar found in our blood—in fact, dextrose is also referred to as “D-glucose.”
Like glucose and other simple sugars (including fructose and galactose), dextrose has just one sugar molecule, classifying it as a monosaccharide.
This simple sugar structure means that dextrose is incredibly easy for the body to break down, raising blood sugar levels rapidly.
In some situations, quick blood sugar increases are necessary, like in cases of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or during long-distance or endurance workouts or competitions.
However, this also means that dextrose has a high glycemic index, which can be problematic for metabolic health when consumed chronically.
What Is Dextrose Used For?
Dextrose has many applications, including by food companies, athletes, bodybuilders, and in various medical or healthcare settings.
Dextrose in Food
Dextrose is a sweetener found in corn syrup (including high-fructose corn syrup) and many processed foods (such as cakes, cookies, baked goods, chewing gum, soda candy, ice cream, chips, and more).
Cultured dextrose may also be used in various processed foods to extend their shelf life, as it acts as a preservative to inhibit mold or yeast growth.
While dextrose is also found naturally in some foods, including honey, raisins, dried apricots, and Medjool dates, it’s most commonly consumed in the American diet as corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup.
Dextrose in Healthcare Settings
As dextrose has the same chemical structure as glucose, it behaves the same way as glucose does in the body.
For this reason, people with diabetes or those experiencing hypoglycemia take dextrose in various forms to rapidly raise blood sugar levels.
Although we often want to lower our blood glucose levels, having too low blood sugar can be incredibly dangerous—especially for people with diabetes who have trouble regulating their blood sugar on their own.
Low blood sugar (less than 70 mg/dL) can cause symptoms like shaking, sweating, weakness, confusion, and elevated heart rate.
People with diabetes or those prone to hypoglycemia may carry dextrose tablets or gel, as they dissolve in the mouth and can rapidly restore blood sugar levels.
You can find oral dextrose gel or tablets over the counter at most pharmacies.
In a healthcare setting, a doctor may prescribe dextrose in an IV solution when someone is dehydrated and has low blood sugar.
People on TPN (total parenteral nutrition) also receive dextrose via intravenous solutions, which are designed to provide someone with all of their necessary nutrition if they are unable to eat or digest food in their gut.
Doctors may give a dextrose injection, which contains high concentrations of dextrose and is only used in people with very low blood sugar who cannot swallow dextrose tablets or gels.
However, it’s essential that your blood sugar doesn’t get too high. Even if you don’t have diabetes, you should check your blood glucose levels when taking dextrose to ensure they don’t reach dangerously high levels.
Blood sugar can be checked at home by finger prick or with continuous glucose monitors (CGMs).
Dextrose can also be used in children or infants as an intervention for low blood sugar. In children (pediatric hypoglycemia), IV dextrose is often given by doctors. In a home setting, an oral dextrose tablet or gel can be used.
In infants (neonatal hypoglycemia), small amounts of dextrose gel can be given to raise blood sugar levels. Babies born prematurely are at a higher risk for hypoglycemia and often receive IV dextrose at the hospital.
In infants and children, it’s vital to treat hypoglycemia quickly, as it can result in neurological damage if left untreated.
Lastly, dextrose injections can be used in a healthcare setting to relieve pain in people with chronic musculoskeletal conditions. In a process known as prolotherapy, doctors will inject a small amount of dextrose into the site of the pain.
In a systematic review of 33 studies, researchers concluded that dextrose prolotherapy is a supported treatment for pain related to tendinopathies, knee and finger joint osteoarthritis, and spinal or pelvic pain from ligament dysfunction.
Dextrose for Bodybuilding or Athletes
Athletes often use dextrose because it is a fast-digesting sugar high in calories and incredibly easy to break down for immediate energy.
As it can enter the bloodstream rapidly, endurance or long-distance athletes commonly use a dextrose tablet, gel, or drink to boost their energy during or after an intense workout or competition.
Bodybuilders also commonly consume dextrose, as it can increase weight gain and muscle mass.
Like endurance athletes, bodybuilders may take dextrose powder after a workout to replenish glycogen stores and facilitate new muscle growth.
If you’re looking for dextrose supplements, try the dextrose powder from NOW Foods, which is made from non-GMO corn and is third-party tested.
Is Dextrose Healthy?
As we’ve seen, there are some benefits to ingesting dextrose under certain medical conditions.
However, for the general population, dextrose is simply another added sugar often found in processed foods with low nutritional value.
Dextrose is found in corn syrup, which is in many ultra-processed items, including candy, baked goods, soda, and other sweetened foods and drinks.
Therefore, dextrose is not healthy unless you use it conscientiously for medical conditions or during/after long exercise sessions to boost energy and replenish glycogen stores.
Is Dextrose Bad for You?
As dextrose is a simple sugar that is absorbed quickly and raises blood sugar, it is usually not a healthy choice for the general population. If you have certain medical conditions (like chronic hypoglycemia) or are an athlete expending a lot of energy, dextrose can be beneficial for increasing energy and blood glucose levels rapidly.
Conversely, anyone without these conditions should not consume dextrose tablets or foods loaded with dextrose, as a person’s blood sugar level will increase too much. When this happens chronically, metabolic or cardiovascular conditions like insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease can develop.
Is Dextrose the Same as Sugar?
Dextrose is not the same as table sugar (sucrose), which is made up of glucose and fructose. Rather, dextrose is a simple sugar chemically identical to glucose, the sugar found in our bloodstream. Some people use the terms “glucose” and “dextrose” interchangeably, as dextrose (sometimes called D-glucose) can be used by the human body and raise blood sugar just as glucose does. The body breaks down dextrose and glucose in the same way.
Is Dextrose Natural or Artificial?
Dextrose is a naturally occurring, fast-digesting sugar typically derived from corn but can also be extracted from rice or wheat.
Is Dextrose Gluten-Free?
Dextrose is considered to be gluten-free, even if it is derived from wheat. According to Coeliac UK, dextrose production methods involve hydrolyzation, which makes the final product gluten-free. However, if you have a severe wheat allergy, it may be wise to avoid wheat-derived dextrose.
Is Dextrose Healthier Than Cane Sugar?
No, dextrose is not healthier than cane sugar—they are simply different types of sugar. Dextrose is a simple sugar with only one sugar molecule (identical to glucose), while table sugar, or sucrose, is a disaccharide (two sugar molecules) made up of glucose and fructose.
Therefore, dextrose has a more immediate effect on raising blood sugar, as it does not require digestive enzymes to break it into single sugar molecules. While raising blood sugar rapidly is vital in certain situations, consuming too much simple sugar, like dextrose, can cause high blood sugar and lead to detrimental metabolic health conditions.
Who Should Not Use Dextrose?
If you have hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), you should not consume dextrose, as it can rapidly raise blood sugar further. You should also avoid dextrose or dextrose-containing foods if you have low potassium levels (hypokalemia), experience swelling in your arms, feet, or legs (peripheral edema), or have fluid buildup in your lungs (pulmonary edema). You will also likely want to avoid dextrose if you have a severe allergy to corn, wheat, or rice (depending on how it was derived), as it may cause an allergic reaction.