Am I the only one who’s confused by some of the ingredients I see in processed foods these days? Some of these new ingredients are quite mysterious – modified food starch, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, potato starch, maltodextrin, anyone? Apart from ‘what is it?’, the real question for celiacs is, are these substances safe for me to eat?
First of all, what are starches? Starches are what a plant uses to store energy and are complex carbohydrates. Contained in many staple foods, starch is the most common carbohydrate in the human diet. Foods such as wheat, corn, rice, potatoes and other root vegetables contain starch. Starches have thickening properties and are often used for thickening soups, stews or gravies.
Corn starch is gluten free. Even so, if you live in the United States and of are reproductive age of either sex, I would advise against eating anything containing corn unless it is marked ‘certified organic’. This is because, unless it is organic, the product will be derived from genetically modified corn. Genetically modified foods have been directly linked to miscarriage and infertility in both humans and animals, so they are unsafe for celiacs or others, for that matter, to eat. If you live in other countries, however, corn starch should be safe to eat. It is advisable to check with the appropriate authorities to inquire whether the corn in your country is likely to be genetically modified.
Food Starch/Modified Food Starch
Watch out for this one! Food starch can come from a variety of sources, including wheat, corn, potato and tapioca. Modified food starch has been treated physically or chemically to change its structure. These chemical changes make it more water soluble and more stable at high temperatures. If you live in the USA, the manufacturer has to state if the food starch is derived from wheat on the food label. Elsewhere, this may not be the case. In any case, I would say this is definitely one to avoid, unless the food is clearly marked as being gluten free.
Sometimes called potato starch flour, potato starch is made by crushing potatoes, removing the starch grains, and then washing and drying them. Often added to soups and stews as a thickener, potato starch is actually a staple ingredient for baking in countries that are too cold for wheat growing, such as the Scandinavian countries. Potato starch is commercially available in North America and is excellent for making flour-free sponge cakes, as it produces very light cakes. Happily, potato starch is gluten free. Do not confuse this ingredient with potato flour, which is a much heavier ingredient and may contain traces of wheat.