Because you asked...modified food starch

>> Monday, May 4, 2009

A reader asked me a little while back about the ingredient "modified food starch" - what is it and should it be avoided. Great question! Modified food starch is a very common ingredient, so let's find out a little about it!

Modified food starch can be made from many different grains - corn, wheat, tapioca, etc. - but for the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to focus on modified cornstarch. The principles are the same for all of the modified starches.


Why not just use regular starch?
Let's start by talking about unmodified starch. Starch, a long-chain carbohydrate, is the food reserves of many plants - including corn. In making cornstarch, the corn kernels are soaked and the outer covering removed. The embryo - or the center of the kernel that would form a new corn plant - is also removed. The remaining part of the kernel is mostly starch, which is dried and ground into a fine powder. (For a more detailed description of cornstarch processing, check out this article from the International Starch Institute.) Dent corn, a "field" corn, seems to be the corn most often used to make cornstarch.

Unmodified cornstarch breaks down when heated too much, which is why gravy made with cornstarch is often watery and thin when reheated the next day. Cornstarch also does not hold up well in acidic environments. To minimize the limitations of cornstarch, processed foods often use "modified cornstarch." Cornstarch is modified by applying different reaction conditions to produce the desired end product. The starch can be physically modified, chemically modified, or enzymatically modified. The starch retains its granular form and often resembles the original starch, but the modification results in improved properties.

How is modified food starch used?
Modified food starches are used in a mind-boggling variety of products - luncheon meats, orange juice, baked goods, biofuels, bioplastics, and the list goes on - for a variety of reasons. Modified food starches are used as gelling agents, insuring that foods maintain the correct texture in both frozen and microwaved foods. They're used as thickeners in fat-free dairy products. They're used as bulking agents to increase the bulk of a food without affecting its nutritional value. Modified food starches might be used as an anti-caking agent to keep foods free-flowing, or as an inexpensive way to control moisure in a food product. In low-fat meat products, modified food starch is used as a binder.

Is modified food starch dangerous?
The accepted answer to this question is that modified food starch is harmless. Modified food starch doesn't really have any nutritional value, but it does serve a useful purpose in processed foods. The one concern noted is that manufacturing of modified food starch is not tranparent. There is virtually no way to find out how the modified food starch used in a product was produced - what chemicals or enzymes were used, if used at all, for example - and the possibility of trace chemical contamination bothers some.

I'll note that people sensitive to wheat or gluten should avoid products with modified food starch as an ingredient unless it specifically states that the product is gluten free or states the specific type of starch used. Many manufacturers will use whatever food starch is cheapest or readily available for their product - corn, wheat, or otherwise.

Should you avoid foods with modified food starch?
That's a personal decision. If you don't like the idea of a heavily processed ingredient, then you would probably be happier without modified food starch in your life. Having done a little research, I'm not bothered by this ingredient, so personally, I'm not avoiding foods made with modified food starch.

Thanks so much for the question, Barb! Have an ingredient of a nutrition question? E-mail me! It might take me a little while, but I'll try to answer in a post!

54 comments:

Greg May 4, 2009 at 9:05 PM  

When deciding whether to avoid modified food starch it's important to look at the entire food the ingredient is in, and not just the information about a single ingredient. Processed foods are almost always high in sodium for example.

The vast majority of food-like products that contain modified food starch aren't what your great grand mother would have known as food.

Any diet high in processed foods is certain to be lower on whole plant based foods. If your not eating your food whole, you're almost certainly setting yourself up for a whole host of illnesses and ill affects.

Hanlie May 4, 2009 at 11:13 PM  

Thanks for enlightening us about this ingredient. I used to work at a company that sold bakery ingredients and we sold a lot of modified starch to people who made meat pies, so I sort of knew what it was for, but I had not idea it was used so extensively.

I agree with Greg that the key to good health is to avoid processed foods as far as possible, so by default, modified starch shouldn't feature in our diets.

cathy May 5, 2009 at 7:01 AM  

Greg - I agree with you - wholeheartedly. BUT, for those of us who are greatly reducing their intake of processed foods but not necessarily eliminating them all, I think that it's good to know what these ingredients are. Some ingredients are downright scary, but others are a bit more innocuous. Modified food starch seems ubiquitous in processed foods - and not always overly processed ones. To avoid or not is a personal choice, but I feel more comfortable with this particular ingredient. I DO agree with you that we need to look at the ingredient list as a whole when buying foods though - regardless of the processing.

Hanlie - So interesting that you actually sold this ingredient! Always love hearing your thoughts!

Jenna May 5, 2009 at 11:13 AM  

thanks for sharing your findings, that was insightful. another factor to consider is the amount of starch used. if it falls low down on the ingredient list only a small amount is used in the product. i'd be more likely to avoid a product that has modified start listed higher in the ingredient list because it is a poster child for "food bit" it's not a whole food, and it's the part of a grain that has the least amount of nutrients.

Cascia May 7, 2009 at 2:20 PM  

I didn't know anything about modified food starch. I prefer to feed my family only whole natural foods but haven't thought much about this. I trust your judgment and won't worry too much about modified food starch. Thank you for sharing this very informative article!

Kaizo June 30, 2009 at 11:24 AM  

The only concern that I have about modified starch is that it frequently contains MSG. Whatever you feel about MSG it's part of the manufacturing process for modified starches.

David August 26, 2009 at 8:54 AM  

As one less concerned with processed foods (that which does not kill me has made a tactical error), I was coming here mostly curious as to what, exactly, "modified" food starch is, and my curiosity has been satisfied! Thank you! I don't intend to avoid it, but I will be more conscious of products that use it (as another already noted) toward the top of the ingredient list.

Jeremy October 6, 2009 at 5:47 PM  

I think it's curious that everyone keeps commenting that starch has no nutrients. Of course it does, it's carbohydrate. It's a long, often branched chain of glucose molecules. If you don't consider carbohydrate a nutrient, consider this. Your brain requires ~100g of glucose per day to fully function, whether it gets that from starch or sugar, it needs it. Also, I've never heard of MSG being used in the manufacture of modified starch, particularly because there are hundreds of modified starches. I'd check Fennema's Food Chemistry to be sure, but there really shouldn't be any in there. Being a PhD in chemical engineering, you'd probably find it an interesting reference. I highly recommend a copy. Also you can check out tateandlyle.com or nationalstarch.com to see the multitudes of starches available to the food industry, these two companies are probably the largest starch suppliers to food manufacturers in the country. If you look around you'll probably find application guides that tell you what types of starches are used for what types of processed foods. What I also find interesting and almost humorous is that you're completely against HFCS, which starts out as corn starch and is enzymatically modified to a final product, yet you're fine with modified food starch, which starts as a corn starch and may very well be enzymatically modified to a final product. Yeah, that makes sense.

halfbakedcake November 4, 2009 at 9:28 PM  

Thanks for the level headed discussion. King Arthur Flour just added modified food starch as a "secret ingredient" now available for home bakers, and I was curious about it. I like to keep my baked goods as "natural" as I can, but it promises excellent results. I it somehow delays retrogradation, but I know very little about the manufacturing process. I just got my BS in Food Science, but I focused mostly on microbiology (though I took 5 semesters of chemistry). I really don't feel like slogging through all the scientific articles about it, and I was afraid I would only find alarmist articles about MFS. After reading this, I think I might give it a try. I don't expect it to give me better results than adding sour cream to my cake batter (MY secret ingredient), but as a food scientist, I naturally want to experiment. I'm a bit concerned about the fact that it's probably GMO'd, but eh, I'm curious.

bfotk December 15, 2009 at 12:28 PM  

I have two problems with modified food starch.

The first is that it adds a very distinctive and, to me, unpleasant taste to the products that use it. The other is that it quickly breaks down upon contact with saliva.

I just finished a bowl of Progresso New England Clam Chowder. I hadn't looked at the label when I bought it. At first taste, I knew that modified food starch was a major ingredient.

I finished the bowl (1/2 a can) because I'd already prepared some garlic bread and poured a glass of wine to go with it. But after just a couple of spoonsful, the soup turned from a fairly thick consistency to quite thin.

It thinned out more and more until it was about like milk. I don't know for sure that it was my ptyalin that did it, but I believe it had to be.

I don't know what I'll do with the other half of the can. I'm pretty sure my wife won't want it and I surely don't. I guess it will get tossed.

Anonymous May 26, 2010 at 9:04 PM  

I have to avoid Modified Food Starch because I get gum swelling and my hair falls out. Some hair fall-out is normal, but after I have had MFS, it is double normal. I think it is "modified" to remove the nutrients that would decrease it's shelf life, and make it spoil. (Adelle Davis says this in her books.) Then it so non-nutritive, that they have to replace the vitamins. But they are from chemical sources and therefore are still non-nutritive! But the products last forever on the shelf!!! Bugs don't even want that stuff! Then, because the chemical nutrients are not balanced, as they are in nature, it creates an imbalance in B Vitamins. It's in everything! It's even in pills as a binder. I have just recently become aware of the pitfalls of MSG, and now am researching the connection between the two. When I delete MFS from my diet, my hair fallout is normal(50-80 hairs per day). I'm a barber by trade, so it is my job to know these things. Maybe the MSG also has something to with it. I'll find out soon. Thanks so much for your helpful and informative website. Caroline

Anonymous August 7, 2010 at 11:29 PM  

Most of the discussion here, about modified corn starch, deals solely with the production of the modified product and not the main ingredient - corn. Almost all corn on the market today is genetically modified. That is, it contains pesticides, viruses, harmful bacteria, and other undesirable DNA agents. Even human DNA has been used to create the modified corn. As such, any corn product should be avoided unless it comes from a certified organic farm. If you want to verify this comment read the book,"The World According to Monsanto", by Marie-Monique Robin. After yo read this book then ask yourself if you want to eat anything consisting of corn made in the United States. Then ask the question as to why Europe refuse to import GMO corn from the United States. It's not too hard to figure out why all of a sudden all of this modified corn starch is being dumped on the American people. It may already be too late.

David October 11, 2010 at 7:44 PM  

Hello, I LOVE your post on modified food starch. I hope you don't mind me helping you advertise your site as I repost your text on my site and reference your site in the post so people can read the original and other posts you have. Thanks for all the time you put in to write such an informative post.

Chef David Shaw
chefshaw.com

Anonymous December 4, 2010 at 10:19 AM  

I have celiac spru, which means that I am allergic to anything that contains wheat, therefor I am grateful for the information you gave me. No one so far could tell me the meaning of modified starch.

Ian December 9, 2010 at 12:46 PM  

I recently contacted progresso and they COULD NOT tell me if the MFS was from corn, wheat, tapioca, or potatoes. They also wouldn't say if the corn or soybeans used in the soup were GMO or not. They just kept giving me this bull about the FDA and how GMO's are "safe". Isn't that great?

Anonymous December 25, 2010 at 8:02 AM  

My reactions to modified food starch is extreme. Ten to fifteen minutes after consumption, I become very drowsy and concentration is difficult. I leave the dining table and promptly fall asleep. When driving and depending on the amount ingested, I need to find a place to park and take a short nap. Also, my night vison becomes blurred and I become somewhat uncoordinated when walking. This has reduced my quality of life and has become dangerous.

After reading this site, my take on my condition is as follows; the brain requires glucose and it gets it from sugar and starches and these described functions are controlled by the brain. Modified food starch has the nutrients removed and as such the product has no food value. Either the resulting glucose is corrupted or I'm reacting to the trace enzymes or chemicals used in its production.

I’ve been aware of modified food starch affects on me for about twelve years and I tried to avoid foods containing this product with limited results. Early his year, the above mentioned affects have become more acute as the inclusion of MFS in products has increased. Recently, I tried another internet search and I found a great deal of information as opposed to the past attempts I found very little.

Evidently, the food processors are mainly concerned with costs and production and are not concerned with the nutrition and safety of this product. There should be more testing on people with the proper controls and providing warning labels. This attitude and lack of due diligence has given rise to a whole industry of opposition and alternates.

Anonymous January 16, 2011 at 12:47 PM  

I have found that modified food startch causes diarreha. At firt I thought it was just maltodextrin like found in splenda, but is all the different forms. It is quite difficult to weed out all the products with MFS. Has anyone else had this reaction?

lupenbuf January 17, 2011 at 1:38 PM  

I suffer migraines from corn products. It really disappoints me that a product can be labeled as having "modified food starch," but not list what food it originated from!

Anonymous January 26, 2011 at 8:26 AM  

Great info. Thank you!
I found this site this morning because I had a reaction to my dinner last evening of Hormel turkey dark meat and steamed broccoli. My reaction was similar to the one I get when I ingest MSG - upset stomach, general malaise much like the flu coming on. I was puzzled about this so this morning I dug the turkey wrapper out of the garbage (I doubted the broccoli was the culprit) and found no MSG on the label...but what the heck is in modified food starch? I wondered. I actually had the AH...HA moment when reading info on the site truthinlabelling.org about MFS - it is the processing of many items that allows some of the elements of MSG to remain in a product and be labeled MFS - these may be the ones to which I react negatively. Many of these foods are labeled no MSG when in fact these remaining elements are the ones people react to. This is so intriguing - I will continue my research!
Thanks for the site!

Vera January 26, 2011 at 1:12 PM  

I am looking for a cheaper product than "Thick It" for my 93 yr. old Mother who has swallowing problems. It says it contains Modified Food Starch. Would corn starch work to thicking her liquids or what else could I use?

K. January 31, 2011 at 7:52 PM  

Vera, have you considered arrowroot?

Vera February 1, 2011 at 4:50 PM  

K. Thank you. I think it is a flour, can you buy it in a regular grocery store. I want it mostly to put in liquids to drink like water & juices, wonder if it has a taste?

seartho June 11, 2011 at 5:45 AM  

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Anonymous September 12, 2011 at 2:40 AM  

i read all processed food labels specifically to avoid modified food starch. i inevitably react to it in the form of insomnia, shakiness and disturbed dreams. and this product is ubiquitous!

Anonymous September 15, 2011 at 4:38 PM  

Anonymous from January 26th, 2011 described the effects of carrageenan, which is an ingredient in many products, including Hormel turkey. It is derived from a type of seaweed and is considered a natural ingredient. I've found it triggers my ulcerative colitis and I avoid it at all costs! As long as I avoid it (which is hard to do since it may not be on the label, instead included in ingredients such as cream and buttermilk) my ulcerative colitis is in remission!

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GED December 6, 2011 at 9:22 AM  

Very enlightening article. I was never this familiar with modified food starch!

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Anonymous February 14, 2012 at 6:36 AM  

Thanks!- I was trying to find out what set off my gluten allergy, and this must be it!

Anonymous March 8, 2012 at 3:32 PM  

I also had problems with IBS type symptoms for years and found out through a friend who had the same symptoms that carrageenan was the culprit....since I've started looking at ingredients for EVERYTHING, and not consumed ones with carrageenan, it is 100% better. I strongly urge anyone with IBS or Colitis type symptoms to start cutting carrageenan out of their diet to see if it improves.

Stephanie March 12, 2012 at 3:39 PM  

According to the truthinlabeling.org website. The chemical in MSG that causes the adverse reaction in so many people is called processed free glutamic acid. MANY other ingredients include this chemical and will cause the same reaction for those who have problems with MSG. They have growing list of all the ingredients that are known to have this chemical. One part that I found particularly interesting is this section: The following are ingredients suspected of containing or creating sufficient processed free glutamic acid to serve as MSG-reaction triggers in HIGHLY SENSITIVE people:
Corn starch, Corn syrup, Modified food starch, Lipolyzed butter fat, Dextrose,
Rice syrup,
Brown rice syrup, Milk powder, Reduced fat milk (skim; 1%; 2%,) most things low fat or no fat, anything Enriched,
anything Vitamin enriched.

This would explain why those with problem with MSG would be having problems with Modified Food Starch.

Anonymous May 16, 2012 at 9:34 AM  

ruthagnes - wow, thanks for this info. I was diagnosed with celiac sprue, ulcer, ibs 2 weeks ago and am struggling with info from hospital, internet, authors, doctor and various know-it-all friends. This truly helps me.

Anonymous June 10, 2012 at 8:26 AM  

I use a brand of modified food starch called Ultra Gel. It is made from waxy maize (corn) so it is gluten free. It is physically modified by spray drying (sprayed into a stream of air) so it looks like a snowflake under a magnifying glass. IMHO, it is to natural starch what snowflakes are to water -- just a change of state. It has the same nutritional value as natural starch, but dissolves instantly.
I use it to make a "white sauce" without milk for lactose intolerant visitors, in a ranch dressing that eliminates the fat, and to make low sugar fresh strawberry pies that my family loves.

Anonymous July 17, 2012 at 2:54 AM  

modified starch is the solution to everchanging consumer eating needs on foods like Dairy,Savoury,Meat and Bakery.MFS are safe,they are derived from native starch.Some MFS are very useful nutritionally as they can reduce use of fat in bakery.

Anonymous October 14, 2012 at 7:27 PM  

I see that starch or modified starch comes from glucose. So, are either of these consider a form of sugar/sweetener? I'm looking to eliminate sugar/sweeteners from my diet.

Anonymous December 25, 2012 at 2:45 PM  

I had similar reactions of insomnia and shakiness after eating chocolates, not excessive and found MFS was in the ingredient which i least ecpected.
NaturalisBest

ARABELLA ASTON May 10, 2013 at 2:26 PM  

The embryo - or the center of the kernel that would form a new corn plant - is also removed. The remaining part of the kernel is mostly starch, which is dried and ground into a fine powder. wheatgrass shots recipe

Joe Hill June 28, 2013 at 10:45 AM  

It is the same thing as MSG. In fact most MSG is simply corn starch that has been modified. It has the exact same effect on me as MSG because it is the same or very nearly the same. It is a starch broken down either by an acid, a base, or some other process like fermentation. I absolutely utterly disagree with your blog post. Please spare others damage by issuing a retraction.

angelstarch September 2, 2013 at 4:25 AM  

The starch is highly consumed in these days for regaining the energy. The starch is essentially in the preparation of various bevarages and sweet dishes. It is used in various industries for various purposes.

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Health Consultant September 17, 2013 at 8:30 AM  

Modified or processed foods are not good for the health, these foods don't provide rich vitamins and nutrition for the better health and diseases control.
An organic and natural diet plan is more preferable for the health improvement and diseases prevention.

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Anonymous January 15, 2014 at 4:17 AM  

Is it correct that now, if the ingredient is listed as "modified food starch" and it is made with wheat, they must indicate on the label by law that it contains wheat?

Anonymous March 7, 2014 at 4:50 PM  

I have recently began eating natural foods. I love salad, but am very disappointed to find that virtually all salad dressings contain modified food starch. Buyer beware: it's better to make your own.

Anonymous April 17, 2014 at 8:16 PM  

Starch from corn is field corn = BT Corn from Monsanto (90% ubiquity in America), thus all modified starch contains Cauliflower Mosaic Virus and BT Pesticide. MONSANTO IS A FOOD TERRORIST ORGANIZATION and should be dismantled, closed, the executives and BOD's, the ex-Monsanto attorneys who went into the USDA and FDA to make GMO policy, should be arrested and convicted of crimes against humanity. All money from the company and these terrorist shareholders immediately given to poisoned farms of BT Corn, to turn to organic, and rid the country of this horrible poison.
Monsanto needs to be shuttered!

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Anonymous August 18, 2014 at 10:51 AM  

What are manufactuers doing to our food? It best to go to all natural whole food! Thank you for info on modified starch. It bothers me that we really don't have access to the real list/souce of packaged food products

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Jenn November 18, 2014 at 9:57 AM  

I get sick if I have something that contains modified cornstarch in the same way that I get sick if I have MSG. Modified cornstarch is in SO many things, spices, breads, meats, sauces and soups. I can have wheat, and corn and cornstarch... there is something that they do to it that my body hates. I also find now that I have cut it out of my diet that even a small amount has horrible effects. Almost as though with consumption we become desensitized to it. Creepy.

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