I love starchy foods. Baked, fried, loaded, with ketchup, it’s all great. I’m evidently not the only fan. Starch is the most common carbohydrate (sugar) consumed in the human diet worldwide and is found in many foods.1 It’s naturally created by plants that grow in some form on all seven continents. Yes, even in Antarctica you can find a garden growing some starchy vegetables. Albeit, they are inside of a heated building of the Davis Station research camp, not planted in rows among roaming free-range penguins.
Many plants create starch as a way to store energy for later use or as a vehicle with which to spread the seeds of the plant. The most common starches are made up of two groups, cereals and root vegetables. The most common cereals being rice, wheat, and corn. The most common root vegetables include potatoes, onions, beets, and yams. Typically, raw starches are rather hard and difficult for the human body to thoroughly digest; we don’t have the enzymes to break them down properly. However, if they are cooked, we can digest them more easily, plus they taste much better this way. If you don’t believe me, go try and take a bite out of a raw potato.
Not only are starches good for eating, but they can also be a particularly useful tool for food scientists. In the food industry, starches can be fermented or malted to produce ethanol in the production of beer, whiskey, and vodka. Starches are also an extremely common additive used in processed foods. After being processed, starches can be added to foods to help them maintain desirable texture, thickness, and stiffness in different conditions and temperatures. It makes products more shelf stable and this method is fairly cheap, making it an ideal ingredient for processed foods.
On a nutrition label, you will see this item simply listed as “food starch.” You might be wondering, “if I have celiac disease or a wheat allergy is ‘food starch’ a safe ingredient for me to eat?” After all, one of the most common sources of starch is wheat. The answer is that it is probably safe to consume, but there are some things you need to look for when you see food starch as an ingredient.
According to the FDA compliance policy guide 578.100, if only the word “starch” is shown on a food label, that starch must be cornstarch. Any other starch source must be clearly marked by describing the source, for instance, “potato starch” or “beet starch.” Furthermore, the Food Allergen Act of 2006 requires wheat sources to be noted in food labels; wheat-sourced food starch should be clearly listed. In fact, a food containing any top 8 food allergens must disclose that information on the ingredient list. However, sometimes products can be made in a facility that also processes gluten-containing foods. Because of this, it can be difficult to ensure that food will be 100% gluten-free if it is not indicated. But, at least you can be sure that the starch itself won’t be a problem for a person with celiac disease.
What about Modified Food Starch?
Modified food starch is starch that has been treated with an acid, enzymes, high heat, and/or other chemicals to change the structure of the starch.2 These treatments are done to the food starch to change its texture and to make it more stable in different conditions. These starches are often customized to the product that the food starch will be added to. By adding modified starches instead of regular food starch to processed foods, you can get a few extra benefits. The foods can better withstand excessive heating and cooling, have an increased shelf life, and have an improved ability to act as a thickener. This can shorten the time required to thicken a mixture. For that reason, modified starches are often used in instant mixes such as foods that need to be heated and mixed with liquid. Gravy packets, Jell-O, and instant puddings are all examples of foods that might utilize modified food starches. Not only do modified starches mix more quickly, but they can also help keep your final product stable longer, meaning that your Jell-O is less likely to melt or break down.
The process of adding acids and enzymes and exposure to high heat should, in theory, severely alter the structure of the starch molecules and any accompanying proteins. This process makes even wheat sources unlikely to cause a reaction in those with a wheat allergy or celiac disease. That being said, it is always best to err on the side of caution. You should seek out advice from your allergist or physician before eating any foods which could potentially cause an allergic reaction, including food starches made from wheat products.
The same regulation applies to modified food starches; the source must be noted if it is not from corn or if it contains wheat. Any modified food starches from other allergens or gluten sources will be listed. Again, you should avoid modified food starches made from wheat products until you have spoken with your healthcare provider about safely consuming this food item. Luckily, most of the food starches in the U.S. are produced from corn.
Hopefully, now you will feel more comfortable in determining if foods containing food starch are safe for you to eat. If you are ever in doubt, check the ingredient label on the back of the packaging. You might be even be surprised by the number of foods that contain food starch that you never noticed before, particularly on foods with extended shelf lives. Thanks for reading!
- Anne-Charlotte Eliasson (2004). Starch in food: Structure, function and applications. Woodhead Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8493-2555-7.
- Vickie A. Vaclavik, Elizabeth W. Christian (2007). Essentials of food science (3rd ed.). Springer. p. 61. ISBN 978-0-387-69939-4.