With the dramatic events that have unfolded in 2020, demand for local food, support for local farmers and renewed interest in home gardening has exploded in many locations. Describing the boom in “crisis gardening,” one food historian explains, “It’s helpful to be productive and connect with nature and it’s something that’s within our control in a situation that feels entirely out of control.”1
Unfortunately, while some segments of the population have been able to up their commitment to growing, raising or procuring unprocessed real foods, unemployment—and its byproduct, food insecurity—have driven many Americans to food banks or to bargain-bin shopping at brick-and-mortar or online conglomerates. The Feeding America network of food banks reports an average 50 percent increase in the number of people requesting food bank assistance nationwide since March, with four in ten recipients having never sought such assistance before.2 The primary items requested by food banks are shelf-stable canned goods, while items requiring refrigeration—foods like produce, dairy and meat—are expressly on the “do not donate” list.3 Online sales of canned goods and other shelf-stable foods have likewise skyrocketed in the Covid-19 era, increasing by a whopping 69 percent.4
If you were to dissect the “stable” half of the “shelf-stable” equation, one would likely stumble upon a nondescript ingredient that has become a go-to stabilizer, as well as serving as a thickening agent, binder and emulsifier: modified food starch. Products likely to contain modified food starch include canned foods (including canned meats); frozen prepared foods; bakery items (such as breads, cakes and biscuits); candy; jelly; dairy-based desserts such as ice creams and puddings; soups; sauces; instant foods; powder-coated foods; gravies and dressings; beverages such as Gatorade; and even medication capsules.5-7 Modified food starches are also gleefully embraced by the manufacturers of lowfat food products, who celebrate the ability of modified starches to serve as a “fat mimetic”—creating “a fat-like mouthfeel”—and as fat replacers, acting “directly as fat globules.”8
Illustrating the primary aim of this dodgy laboratory assault on native starch molecules, the corporate behemoth Cargill emphasizes that “Cargill’s portfolio of modified food starch has been developed to fulfill the needs of the food industry”9—needs for which native starch is, from the industry’s perspective, ill-suited.5 In Cargill’s characterization of these “functional benefits,” modified food starches are “hard-working ingredients that play an important role in food formulation, providing texture, controlling moisture, stabilizing ingredients and extending shelf life.” What Cargill does not disclose is the health havoc that modified food starches have been wreaking on the unwitting consumers of the products that contain them.
MANY PATHS TO STARCH MODIFICATION
Modified food starch—typically derived from corn, potato, tapioca, rice or wheat—is created through the use of techniques to “change, strengthen or impair new properties by molecular cleavage, rearrangement or introduction of new substituent groups.”5 The goal is to make native starch more amenable to food industry applications; this is accomplished by tampering with properties such as temperature of gelatinization, gel clarity, viscosity, retrogradation (recrystallization), texture and taste.5 The result of these alterations allows the food industry to deploy modified starches, for example, “in foods that promote themselves as ‘instant’ and in foods that might need a certain temperature to thicken (during cooking or freezing). Think of gravy packets, instant puddings and those meals that come in a box and require a minimum amount of cooking or simply need boiling water.”10
Modified food starches get considerable credit for helping the processed food industry rapidly take off in the 1940s and 1950s, and they continue to play a central role to the present day.11 An upbeat online promo piece extolling the virtues of canned chicken states, for example, that modified food starch is basically “supercharging the chick meat with the ability to withstand a lot of abuse during canning, shipping, and long-term storage,” while helping “ensure the meat is the right texture and taste when you finally open it up.”12
There are three broad approaches to starch modification: physical (thermal and nonthermal); enzymatic (through hydrolysis, a technique for rupturing chemical bonds); and chemical. Within the chemical and physical modification categories, food scientists have a staggering array of options at their disposal. For example, chemical techniques may include esterification, etherification, acid treatment, alkaline treatment, bleaching, oxidation (using agents such as chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, potassium permanganate and sodium hypochlorite) or emulsification.5,13 Similarly, physical methods involve either heat treatments (such as pregelatinization, heat-moisture treatment, annealing, microwave heating, osmotic pressure treatment and heating of dry starch) or nonthermal techniques such as “ultrahigh-pressure treatments, instantaneous controlled pressure drop, use of high-pressure homogenizers, dynamic pulsed pressure, pulsed electric field, and freezing and thawing.”14
Which technique is used has major implications for product labeling. Cottoning on to the fact that consumers are growing suspicious of the term “modified,”15 a 2015 article in the Annual Review of Food Science and Technology explained that physical modification techniques offer a labeling loophole, which has increased their popularity among food processors.14 As the authors elaborate, while chemically modified food starches must be listed as a “modified food starch” on food labels, the same does not hold true for physically modified starches: “Physical modifications are of interest to the food industry precisely because no chemical reagents are used, and as a result, the starch product does not need to be labeled as a modified starch.”14
DIARRHEA, HEADACHES AND BLOATING, OH MY
Could consumer leeriness about modified food starches have something to do with widespread reports of adverse effects associated with their consumption? Common reactions reported by adults who have ascertained that they do not tolerate modified food starch include allergies, headaches, diarrhea, bloating, other forms of digestive distress, fatigue and more.10 Sometimes, these symptoms arise from foods that consumers perceive to be health-promoting, such as “‘healthy’ sugar-free yogurt.”16 One website (isitbadforyou.com or IIBFY) gives modified food starch an “F” and lists heart palpitations, chest pain and weight gain as additional side effects beyond the ones already mentioned.17 The IIBFY website also notes that the chemicals used to modify the starches (in the case of chemical modification) pose a health threat in and of themselves.
Concerns about the health effects of modified food starch are not new, particularly in relation to the very young. In a historical review of modified starches in infant foods, published in 2018, the author noted that although “added starch and modified starch became increasingly important in the production of puréed fruits and vegetables” from the 1940s on—and were also widely incorporated into foods such as grain-based fortified infant cereals—by the 1990s, the public and the media had begun to scrutinize infant foods more closely.18 Apparently, this resulted in pressure to cut back on the use of modified starches in baby foods, though bodies such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Academy of Sciences declared the starches’ use in such foods to be completely safe.19
As of the late 1990s, one dedicated group of university researchers was still sounding the alarm about the presence of modified food starches in foods targeted at infants and young children. These dissenting researchers not only described the modified starches’ effects on nutrient absorption, the potential for diarrheal symptoms and possible impacts on the gastrointestinal flora, but also suggested that the starches could be implicated in Crohn’s disease and might have toxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic effects due to the chemicals used to modify the starch.20,21 In 2001, one of the same researchers collaborated on a study showing that modified starch in baby foods produced loose stools and, when consumed along with sorbitol and fructose, led to “frank diarrhea.”22
Considering the foods commonly consumed by a majority of American infants and toddlers, it is likely that young children’s intake of modified food starch remains high. For example, a 2004 analysis of infants’ and toddlers’ food consumption patterns found that nearly half of infants seven to eight months old (46 percent) “consumed some type of dessert, sweet, or sweetened beverage,” and the percentage consuming baked desserts rose to 62 percent by the time the children were nineteen to twenty-four months old.23 A more recent study published in Pediatrics in 2014 reported that 57 percent of twelve-month-olds were consuming sweet foods on a weekly basis and 85 percent were consuming dairy foods other than milk.24 As previously noted, bakery items and low-quality industrial dairy-based products are among the many foods likely to contain modified food starch.
PARTNERS IN CRIME
Maltodextrin is another starch derivative, derived from the same sources as modified food starch (corn, potato, tapioca, rice or wheat) and often added to the same types of packaged or processed foods, including frozen foods, baked goods, salad dressings, soups, sweets and sports drinks.25 And manufacturers add maltodextrin to these foods for similar purposes—to boost flavor, thickness or shelf life. In a sort of one-two punch, it is not uncommon for maltodextrin to be paired with modified food starch in the same food. For example, a trade industry publication in 2005 described how modified food starch “coagglomerated with maltodextrin” provides “enhanced functionality in specific applications,” such as “enhanced dispersion characteristics in hot and cold liquids” and desirable properties in salad dressings, sauces and marinades.26
Trade groups do not mention the myriad health risks with which maltodextrin has been linked. These include an increased risk of diabetes; a risk of inflammatory bowel disease (due to reductions in good gut bacteria and increases in harmful gut bacteria); allergies, asthma and rashes; bloating and flatulence; and weight gain.25 When one views this list of potential problems alongside the unpleasant symptoms linked to modified food starch, it casts a different light on the food industry’s celebration of these ingredients as “downright essential for enabling food manufacturers to provide varied and flavorful offerings to today’s busy consumer.”26
LOOKING THE OTHER WAY
Unfortunately—and not surprisingly—neither food scientists nor food regulators appear particularly interested in the potential health risks associated with modified food starches. A search of “modified food starch” in the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed database pulls up only fifteen published articles since 1980, few of them recent.
In France, where Americans might be forgiven for assuming that food is of higher quality than in the U.S., a study published this year reported that 54 percent of commonly marketed food products (the study examined one hundred twenty-six thousand) contained at least one food additive, and more than one in ten (11 percent) contained at least five additives.27 Modified starches were among the top three types of additives used (present in over ten thousand products), and the foods most likely to include additives included some of the by-now-familiar culprits: “artificially sweetened beverages, ice creams, industrial sandwiches, biscuits and cakes.” The French research team also found that modified starches tended to “cluster” with other noxious additives such as carrageenan. Nonetheless, a safety review requested by the European Commission in 2017 concluded that “there is no safety concern for the use of modified starches as food additives at the reported uses and use levels for the general population.”28
If comparable studies were conducted in the United States today, it is likely that the prevalence of modified starches and other additives would be similar—or worse—and it is virtually certain that regulators would reach the same food industry-friendly conclusions about safety. For now, individuals with complaints about modified food starch appear to be relegated to the blogosphere or to online forums populated by fellow sufferers who commiserate about food labeling shortcomings and the challenges of getting physicians to recognize the problem.
Fortunately, there is one straightforward fix that readers of this journal will readily understand and embrace. If you eat a mostly cooked-from-scratch Wise Traditions diet—full of real animal fats with bona fide mouthfeel and high-integrity ingredients—chances are that you will never have to cross paths with these newfangled starches or contend with their ill effects. The wider challenge that we all need to work toward addressing—and especially at this unprecedented historical juncture—is to ensure that everyone has access to this type of diet.
ADVERSE REACTIONS TO MODIFIED FOOD STARCH
In response to a blog about modified food starch, readers shared comments about their symptoms and reactions:10
• “I get diarrhea from modified starches.”
• “I have a son who has a food allergy to modified food starches (throat closes, dizzy, diarrhea, etc.).”
• “I get severe migraine headache with the aura so it is hard to see.”
• “My husband always gets diarrhea. I do not react that way but get bloated and gassy.”
• “I get a ton of bloating and hives all over. I would also say my head feels foggy and my mood becomes depressed and angry.”
• “[M]y problem of bloating and tummy ache is getting worse.”
• “Modified starch-containing foods make me tired, lethargic and put me to sleep.”
• “Large amounts [of modified starch] demyelinate and cause lesions.”
• “My reaction is itching. My hands look awful.”
GMOS, GLYPHOSATE AND MODIFIED STARCH
Among the constituencies that should get credit for illuminating the risks of modified food starches are the individuals
and organizations involved in publicizing the dangers of genetically modified ingredients. Many modified starches come
from corn. With the high likelihood of corn being GMO, modified starches should, therefore, be considered a potential
GMO ingredient.29 Maltodextrin also commonly comes from GMO corn.
Because wheat is another source material for modified food starch, contamination with glyphosate (used as a dessicant
on conventional wheat crops and, sadly, also present as a contaminant in some organic wheat) is a possibility. There is
also another challenge specific to wheat-derived modified starch; individuals suffering from celiac disease—and others
who need a diet guaranteed to be gluten-free—complain that they have difficulty screening for gluten in modified starch
because lax labeling rules “do not require [that] the grain source be disclosed on ingredient labels.”30
- Helmer J. How the coronavirus pandemic has led to a boom in crisis gardening. Huffpost, April 3, 2020.
- Hartman K. What are people buying during the COVID-19 pandemic? WCPO-9 Cincinnati, April 2, 2020. https://www.wcpo.com/news/coronavirus/what-are-people-buying-during-the-covid-19-pandemic.
- What is modified food starch (E1404–E1452): Types, uses, and is it gluten-free? Food Additives, January 2, 2020. https://foodadditives.net/starch/modified-food-starch/.
- Daniels J. What is modified corn starch? BestSpy, May 4, 2020. https://www.bestspy.org/what-is-modified-corn-starch/.
- Miller B. Bad Gatorade ingredients. Healthfully, July 8, 2011. https://healthfully.com/63889-bad-gatorade-ingredients.html.
- Chen Y, She Y, Zhang R, et al. Use of starch-based fat replacers in foods as a strategy to reduce dietary intake of fat and risk of metabolic diseases. Food Sci Nutr. 2019;8(1):16-22.
- Stockton C. Modified food starch demystified. Inside the Mill, May 16, 2012. https://www.bobsredmill.com/blog/healthy-living/modified-food-starch-demystified.
- BeMiller JN. One hundred years of commercial food carbohydrates in the United States. J Agric Food Chem. 2009;57(18):8125-8129.
- BeMiller JN, Huber KC. Physical modification of food starch functionalities. Annu Rev Food Sci Technol. 2015;6:19-69.
- Searby L. Shades of grey. Food Manufacture, October 1, 2012. https://www.foodmanufacture.co.uk/Article/2012/10/02/Shades-of-grey.
- Williams H. 7 harmful additives in food to avoid that might be causing your stomach problems. Allwomenstalk, February 6, 2020. https://food.allwomenstalk.com/harmful-additives-in-food-to-avoid-that-might-be-causing-your-stomach-problems/.
- Greer FR. Use of starch and modified starches in infant feeding: a historical perspective. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2018;66(Suppl 3):S30-S34.
- Filer Jr. LJ. Modified food starch—an update. J Am Diet Assoc. 1988;88(3):342-344.
- Lanciers S, Mehta DI, Blecker U, Lebenthal E. The role of modified food starches in baby food. J La State Med Soc. 1997;149(6):211-214.
- Lanciers S, Mehta DI, Blecker U, Lebenthal E. Modified food starches in baby food. Indian J Pediatr. 1998;65(4):541-546.
- Lebenthal-Bendor Y, Theuer RC, Lebenthal A, Tabi I, Lebenthal E. Malabsorption of modified food starch (acetylated distarch phosphate) in normal infants and in 8-24-month-old toddlers with non-specific diarrhea, as influenced by sorbitol and fructose. Acta Paediatr. 2001;90(12):1368-1372.
- Fox MK, Pac S, Devaney B, Jankowski L. Feeding infants and toddlers study: What foods are infants and toddlers eating? J Am Diet Assoc. 2004;104(1 Suppl 1):s22-30.
- Wen X, Kong KL, Eiden RD, Sharma NN, Xie C. Sociodemographic differences and infant dietary patterns. Pediatrics. 2014;134(5):e1387-e1398.
- Cavaco J. What is maltodextrin and is it safe? Medical News Today, July 11, 2018.
- Berry D. From starch to maltodextrin. Natural Products Insider, July 1, 2005.
- Chazelas E, Deschasaux M, Srour B, et al. Food additives: distribution and co-occurrence in 126,000 food products of the French market. Sci Rep. 2020;10(1):3980.
- Mortensen A, Aguilar F, Crebelli R, et al. Re-evaluation of oxidised starch (E 1404), . . . and starch aluminium octenyl succinate (E 1452) as food additives. EFSA J. 2017;15(10):e04911.
- Asaff B. Identifying modified food starch on labels. https://gluten.lovetoknow.com/Modified_Food_Starch.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2020