If you’re one to look at food labels, you’ve probably come across an ingredient that sounds a little suspect: modified food starch. While modified food starch is often gluten-free, you’re right to take pause before consuming this common but questionable additive. Let’s take a closer look.
What Is Modified Food Starch?
Modified food starch is a food ingredient made from the starch of other foods. Modified food starch gets its name as it involves physically, enzymatically, or chemically altering starch to change its inherent properties. The word “modified” may raise suspicion about genetic modification or GMOs. While modified food starches are not necessarily genetically modified some modified starches are likely made from genetically modified ingredients, like corn.
Modified food starch can be made from a number of food sources, including corn, tapioca, potato, waxy maize, tapioca, or wheat. In America, the most common food sources are modified corn, waxy maize, and potato. Sometimes, labels will list the source from which the starch was modified, like “modified corn starch.” However, unless the modified food starch is derived from one of the top eight allergens (like wheat), it is not required by law that the specific source be listed.
Modified food starch is used as an additive in packaged and processed foods to thicken, stabilize, or emulsify. It tends to improve the texture or consistency of foods to extend their palatability throughout a longer shelf life. For example, modified food starch can keep a jarred sauce thicker or a bottled dressing well-mixed.
Common Types of Modified Food Starch
Modified food starch is found in a number of packaged and processed foods – even those marketed as “better-for-you” options. You might see modified food starch show up on ingredient labels for foods like baked goods, snacks, marinades, sauces, dressings, and soups. Modified starches are often used in foods that promote themselves as “instant” and in foods that might need a certain temperature to thicken (during cooking or freezing), like premade meals and “instant” foods like oats and puddings.
How to Avoid Gluten from Modified Food Starch
As is the case in avoiding gluten in any food, it is important to read labels carefully. As modified food starch can be derived from wheat, it is important to avoid this source in particular.
As always, I advise to be cautious of any packaged or processed food, as they are typically made with refined sugars and carbohydrates, are lacking in critical nutrients, and may be subject to cross contamination.
The Bottom Line
Even though modified food starch may be gluten-free in some cases, it isn’t necessarily a food additive you want to consume. We still don’t fully understand the health implications of modified food starch, and there is a need for more information and research around their bioavailability, effect on nutrient absorption, intestinal changes, and toxic, mutagenic, and carcinogenic effects.
In addition, we do know that modified food starch is often produced from low quality and sometimes genetically modified sources. Common in packaged foods, modified food starch may even act as an indicator that a food is highly processed and therefore one you wouldn’t otherwise want to consume. For these reasons, I recommend limiting or avoiding modified food starches as much as possible.