We've all heard of cornstarch, which is prepared from the endosperm of corn kernels. We've even used cornstarch in various recipes as thickening and binding agents. However, what's modified starch that we find listed on the labels of various food products? If you scan the label on a yogurt cup, you will find modified cornstarch listed there. Moreover, the labels of processed foods such as sauces, salad dressings, pie fillings, instant puddings, soup mixes, white tea, etc. also list modified cornstarch on the label.
Modified starch is nothing but cornstarch that has been further treated enzymatically and physically, so as to modify its physical properties. This modified version has greater stabilizing and emulsifying properties, greater thickening capacity, better binding properties, etc. Modified cornstarch does not impart any flavor to a food item, and is purely added to improve texture and consistency. Besides its uses in the food industry, modified starch is also used in paper manufacturing, pharmaceutical industry, and starching clothes.
What is Modified Starch used For?
Modified cornstarch acts as a stabilizer, and thickens various food products. It thickens the food item by preventing a particular reaction that would otherwise decrease the viscosity of the product. It is also added to frozen foods, so as to attain the right, creamy consistency on heating. When frozen foods are kept to thaw, the modified starch added to them is what keeps them stable.
An emulsifier assists two immiscible liquids to become miscible. For example, in salad dressings, when oil is added, the cornstarch stabilizes the oil-in-water emulsion.
In fat-free products, modified cornstarch is added as a thickening agent, so as to impart a lovely, creamy texture, which is absent in the low-fat version, due to the absence of fat. It is also used in instant desserts, wherein it imparts the desired thickness to puddings, on the addition of cold milk or water.
It helps keep food free-flowing. For example, in gravy granules modified cornstarch is added to keep it from clumping together.
In low-fat meat products, modified cornstarch is added due to its binding properties. It is also used in the pharmaceutical industry because of its binding action.
Modified cornstarch is a cheaper method of keeping foods moist. The phosphate present in modified cornstarch absorbs water, and helps retain moisture in foods.
It prevents melting of ice creams and other frozen foods. Moreover, modified cornstarch prevents ready-to-eat frozen foods from becoming soggy, when microwaved. They keep the texture nice and crisp.
Is Processed Starch Unhealthy?
Modified cornstarch is not unhealthy per se, in the sense that it does not have any deleterious effects on the body. Nevertheless, since it's the processed version of the already processed cornstarch, it does not impart any nutritional value to the food item to which it is added. However, modified cornstarch is mainly added to processed foods, which are known to be unhealthy for various factors, such as fat content, preservatives, artificial ingredients, etc.
Is Modified Cornstarch Gluten-free?
The term modified cornstarch on the labels can be quite intimidating to those who are allergic to gluten. Cornstarch is prepared from corn, and is gluten-free. Modified cornstarch is the processed version of cornstarch, and if the parent cornstarch is gluten-free, then the modified version is also gluten-free, and safe for those with gluten allergies or celiac disease. However, if the label says 'modified starch', one needs to be careful, because modified starch can be prepared from corn, tapioca, potato, or wheat. In the US, if modified starch has been made from wheat, it is mandatory to mention it explicitly on the label.
How do I avoid Modified Cornstarch?
Modified cornstarch has no known harmful effects, but is also adds zero nutritional value to foods into which it is added. So even though it has no harmful effects, it has no benefits as well. Thus, the decision to avoid it is purely personal. Processed foods are the ones that mostly contain modified cornstarch, and since processed foods are anyway bad for health, if you avoid them, you will be eventually avoiding modified cornstarch as well.
But, what about healthy items like yogurt. If you want to avoid modified cornstarch added to yogurt, try switching to Greek yogurt, which is naturally creamy, and has no modified cornstarch added to it. To avoid modified cornstarch, peruse through the labels of food items, and choose not to consume foods with it.
There is no need to panic by the sight of modified cornstarch on various labels. If you prefer to consume only healthy food items, stay away from modified cornstarch. Nevertheless, even if you consume it once in a while, it will not have any deleterious effects.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert advice from a nutritionist/health care provider.