Identifying Modified Food Starch on Labels

Checking Labels for Wheat Starch
Checking ingredients is not always enough.

Despite legislation aimed at making allergen identification easier, modified food starch remains one of the great uncertainties of gluten-free shopping. This ingredient is usually safe for gluten-sensitive consumers, but uncertain labeling regulations and international differences can make this food additive a potential source of gluten. If you are considering a food product that lists modified starch as an ingredient, careful label-checking might not be enough to be sure the item is safe.

Defining Starch

Products manufactured in the United States must conform to United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) labeling laws. Currently, these organizations have no established standards of identity for food starches. Standards of identity are mandatory requirements products must meet to be legally marketed under a certain name. For example, the standards of identity for white chocolate indicate any product labeled as such must contain a minimum of 20 percent cocoa butter. Starch, however, has no such requirements.

Labeling Starch

The FDA compliance policy guidelines refer to the definition outlined by the United States Pharmacopeia. Under this definition, any ingredient listed simply as "starch" is derived from corn. Other starches, such as potato starch or wheat starch, should be individually identified as such. These regulations do not apply to internationally produced items, so starch in imported foods may be any of the following:

  • Potato starch
  • Tapioca starch
  • Wheat starch

Modified food starch, a chemically processed additive, falls under different guidelines than regular food starch and does not necessarily come from corn.

The Source of Modified Starch

Pure corn starch is not particularly stable at high temperatures and tends to break down with acidity or time. Manufacturers use high temperatures, acids, enzymes or other chemicals to remove the starch portion of the grain from its associated protein. The resulting product is stable under a variety of conditions and does not contain any protein. Gluten, a large protein, is theoretically absent from modified starches after processing. As a result, the FDA and USDA define modified starches as being protein-free and, therefore, do not require the grain source be disclosed on ingredient labels.

The FDA has ruled that gluten-free foods should contain no more than 20 parts per million gluten. Chemical processing of food starch can be trusted to remove protein from a culinary perspective. However, without laboratory analysis or certainty of the source grain, gluten-free shoppers cannot trust that products containing modified starch fall below that level.

Food Allergen Labeling

n 2004, the FDA took a step in the right direction by introducing the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. This act requires ingredients derived from any of eight major food allergens be clearly indicated on food labels. Under the act, modified starch derived from wheat must be clearly identified as such on the ingredient list.

Unfortunately for celiacs, this legislation only targets the following:

  • Fish
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Crustacean shellfish
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Soy beans
  • Wheat

Other potential sources of gluten, such as rye, barley or even oats, do not need to be identified.

Identifying Modified Food Starch

Modified food starch is usually clearly listed on labels of food it is found in. It can, however, also be found under slightly different monikers, including these:

  • Modified starch
  • Food starch, modified
  • Modified Corn Starch
  • Modified Potato Starch
  • Modified Wheat Starch

Foods Containing Modified Food Starch

There are numerous foods that may contain modified food starch. Look for it on the labels of the following foods:

  • Instant puddings
  • Instant desserts
  • Canned soup
  • Liquid cheese
  • Gravy
  • Low-fat foods
  • Salad dressing
  • Jellied candies
  • Baby food
  • Infant formula

Is Modified Food Starch Safe?

Currently, there is no clear way for consumers to know simply from product labels whether modified food starch in a given product is likely to trigger a reaction. For certainty about a product's safety, the best course of action is to look for third party certification such as the NCA Recognition Seal or the GF Certification Mark. In the absence of certification, contact the manufacturer directly to clarify product origins. When in doubt, avoid any processed foods that do not clearly state the source of all ingredients.

Inspect Labels Carefully

Modified food starch can be found in many process foods. Always take the time to read the label to ensure any food you eat is free of it in the absence of other gluten-free certification. Doing so could be crucial to your health.

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Identifying Modified Food Starch on Labels