Clean Label Starches: Better For You Or Just Another Bait & Switch?

Are clean label starches a healthy choice? Well, the answer depends on whom you ask. If you ask the food manufacturers, clean label starches are definitely a better choice over more traditional modified food starches. Not because clean label starches are actually better for you, but because they allow processed foods to have a cleaner looking list of ingredients.

What are Food Starches?

Both starch additives are derived from ingredients such as corn, potato, tapioca and wheat. Both are modified from their original native state to withstand extreme food processing conditions, such as ultra high heat and homogenization.

So what’s the difference? It all comes down to HOW the starches are modified.

Modified versus Clean Label Starches

Chemicals (usually acids) are used to make modified food starches. As a result, the FDA requires them to be labeled as “modified” food starches.

On the other hand, clean label starches are produced by physical means, such as purification and heat treatment. Since no chemicals are used, a clean label starch may simply be referred to as “starch.”

Why use Food Starches?

Modified food starches and clean label starches both act as thickening agents, emulsifiers and stabilizers in many processed foods. Both are added to improve “mouth-feel” as well as maintain a desired texture and taste.

clean label starch in yogurtModified food starches are found in a wide variety of foods.  One example is yogurt. Take a look at the list of ingredients of this popular brand of fat-free vanilla Greek yogurt:

INGREDIENTS: Cultured Pasteurized Organic Nonfat Milk, Organic Cane Sugar, Non-GMO Corn Starch, Organic Natural Vanilla Flavor, Organic Carob Bean Gum, Organic Vanilla Bean Specks, Gellan Gum

One of the biggest hurdles manufacturers face with fat-free products is texture. This is where starch additives come to the rescue. They produce a thick and creamy yogurt in the absence of fat.

“Corn starch” sounds cleaner and more natural than “modified corn starch.” But from a health standpoint, clean label starches are no better than their chemically treated counterparts. Clean label starches are just another bait and switch in my opinion.

Potential Health Concerns

Both starches are nutritionally void. And it’s not always clear what ingredient the starch was originally derived from. In most cases it’s genetically modified corn, but not always.

There are also concerns regarding cross-contamination during the manufacturing process. So be extra careful if you have any food allergies and/or sensitivities.

Some argue modified starches are difficult to digest and there is some scientific evidence to support this. Scientists in this study found certain modifications decreased the rate of digestion in vitro. However, they put a positive spin on it. They suggest modified starches may act as a good source of resistant starch.

The truth is resistant starches aren’t all bad. Our bodies can’t digest them, but they do feed the good bacteria in our digestive tract. And a healthy gut flora is essential to optimal health. However, moderation is still necessary, especially for those with digestive conditions. And most importantly, there are much healthier sources of resistant starch available, such as whole grains, legumes, seeds and cooked then cooled potatoes.

Other Potential Hidden Ingredients

Lastly, there’s buzz about modified starches containing up to 10% maltodextrin, a complex sugar and a common hiding place for monosodium glutamate (MSG). But without access to industry formulations, we’ll never really know!

Healthy Alternatives

When it comes to Greek yogurt, there are several truly clean options available. But, only if you buy it “plain” and spice it up at home.  Or you can make your own Greek style yogurt by straining 32 ounces of plain, organic, whole milk yogurt in a lined colander overnight.

For a treat, top your yogurt with fresh fruit, nuts, and seeds. If a little sweetness is needed, add a drizzle of raw honey or pure maple syrup. A little bit goes a long way!

In Conclusion…

As always, you need to read the ingredient lists to know what’s in your food. But even then manufacturers keep coming up with new ways to trick consumers. When it comes to food starches, both the chemically modified and clean label versions are nothing more than highly processed additives manufacturers use to make foods highly palatable.

To stay in the know about other clean label ingredients food manufacturers are using, sign-up for Mira’s newsletter today! As a thank you, you’ll receive a free copy of Mira’s eBook “Eating Out, Eating Healthy”. It’s packed with tips for making healthy choices when eating out.

About Jaime Askew

Jaime Askew is a Certified Nutrition Consultant, a freelance writer and a former forensic DNA scientist. She currently uses her writing to help others promote health and optimal wellness.