Is Modified Food Starch Safe for Celiacs? Everything You Need to Know About this “Iffy” Ingredient

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We previously discussed the importance of starches in gluten-free baking. Although starch-heavy flours are the least nutritious of the gluten-free flours on the market, starch is critical to providing the texture necessary for many gluten-free foods.

Gluten-free home bakers are familiar with starches such as corn, arrowroot, potato and tapioca starches. But what does it mean when your favorite packaged product lists the vague mystery ingredient “modified food starch?”

Celiacs rightly tend to avoid any ingredient that is ambiguous in its gluten-free status. As with the gluten-free status of alcohol, rumors abound in the gluten-free world as to the gluten-free status of modified food starch. Let’s take a look at what this ingredient really is.

Any starch, including the gluten-free starches we mentioned above, can be chemically modified in a variety of ways to change how they function in recipes.

 

Are Foods with Modified Food Starch Gluten-Free?

Starch modifications can improve a food’s ability to withstand cooling, heating, freezing and defrosting. Modifying a starch by pre-gelatinizing it is how instant puddings can become thickened with only the addition of cold milk, without cooking it. Acid-treating or oxidizing certain starches can change the starch molecule to lower its viscosity. Roasting some starches along with the addition of hydrochloric acid produces dextrin, which can increase crispness of commercially-produced foods. These are just a few of the many modifications that can be made to food starches to change them molecularly.

Although any food starch can be modified, in the United States all modified food starches are gluten-free unless made from wheat. Barley and rye starches are not commonly used. Because of recent food allergen labeling requirements, in the United States any product that uses wheat starch as the basis of its “modified food starch” must list the ingredient as “modified wheat starch” or some similar wording that specifies the product’s wheat-based origin. Alternately, you may find the mention of wheat in the package’s allergen warning. If the product simply says “modified food starch” and has no wheat allergen warning, it is derived from a gluten-free source. The most common sources include corn, potato and tapioca.

 

Can Wheat Starch Be Considered Gluten-Free?

In Europe, however, wheat starch is often considered gluten-free! Procedures for isolating the starch part of the wheat grain can effectively remove nearly all traces of gluten, leaving a starch that has little enough gluten to be called “gluten-free” by European standards.

Countries have different thresholds for gluten content. The United States has not finalized an acceptable gluten content threshold for foods marked “gluten-free”, but in Europe wheat starch that has the gluten removed tests at below the acceptable 200 parts per million (ppm) of gluten and can therefore be labeled “gluten-free”.

The use of the 200 ppm threshold is highly controversial. In Australia the gluten-free standard is much lower, and many celiacs in the United States would like to see this country also adopt a law that requires the gluten-free label to only be used on products well below the 200 ppm. There is evidence that many celiacs react to gluten levels that are lower than 200 ppm.

Until a wheat starch exists that can test reliably at a much lower level of gluten than 200 ppm (perhaps under 20 ppm, the most widely cited proposed standard) most experts suggest avoiding wheat starch. Instead, stick to using gluten-free starches in your own baking and choosing only processed foods that contain modified food starch that isn’t derived from wheat.

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Comments ( 31 )

  • Charleen

    We’ve had a problem with most foods that contain MFS, so we just have learned to avoid it period. Sunkist says that Diet Sunkist is gluten free(we even called them), but we end up sick from it every time. Any suggestions?

  • Glyndell

    Thank you for researching and passing along this important information.

  • Rachel

    I wholeheardedly disagree with this article. I have a very high sensitivity to gluten due to Celiac and Modified Food Starch is definitely on my list of do not eat ingredients. When I eat foods with it listed as an ingredient, I get the typical symptoms of stomach ache, tingling in my hands and feet, and the mind fog so common with Celiacs. I do not believe Modified Food Starch is gluten free!

  • Marianne

    I always find your articles useful however you information on the uk standard for gluten free labelling is out of date. Now foods have to contain less than 20ppm gluten to be labelled as gluten free.

  • Suzanne

    The law changed in Europe in Jan 2012 and the acceptable level of gluten for something to be marked as gluten free is now 20ppm, rather than 200. The article above mentions 200ppm, so does that mean that there are different rules for modified starch, compared to other foods?

  • Prakash

    In the UK we have to have 20ppm Gluten or less for any food item to be labelled as “Gluten Free”.
    Anything that has 21
    -100ppm Gluten is labelled as contains very low gluten.

  • Rolando Gail

    At my country (Argentina) the law is very clear, protecting all of Us:
    a) the limit to be considered GF is 10 ppm
    and
    b)None product derived and/or containing ingredients derived from Wheat, Barley, Rye or oats can be considered GF
    We’re happy of being protected by law against such risks.

  • Linda

    this an enlightening article and I am happy to know that I will be able to eat more foods that are labeled “modified food starch”.Thank you.

    • LaNita Patton

      Do not eat modified food starch! Do not eat anything labeled MODIFIED! Watch the video on YouTube “The Future of Food”. It educates us about GMO’s ( Genectically Modified Organism )

  • Barbara

    I recently spent 3 months in Europe, where foods are clearly labeled as to wheat/gluten content. I also ate NO GMO/GE foods. After one month I found myself feeling less sick than I had for years. After to the USA I am having difficulty finding foods that are gluten/GMO/GE free, & affordable. Unless I can confirm a food product has no wheat/gluten/GMO/GE products anywhere in its food chain, no antibiotics and no hormones, I do not buy or consume that food product. This means no corn, no soy, and the list keeps growing as there are many GMO/GE foods grown in the USA. I was in Sweden where GMO/GE foods are not allowed in the food chain & if they are imported there are very strict regulation regarding labeling. After this personal experience I am convinced the GMO/GE food products contributed greatly to my frequent illness. I am allergic to wheat, as opposed to having celiac disease.

  • Sue

    How about instead of labeling foods “gluten free” why not label how many ppm are contained & let the consumer make the decision to purchase or not. 1ppm is too much for me! I won’t be changing my buying habits where mfs is concerned, been burnt too many times.

  • Carole Westerhof

    I have learned after being gluten free for over 15 years, and still not feeling well, that I had to avoid all starches, in order not to feed the candida. After reading “Wheat Belly”, I have drastically reduced my grain consumption, as this book shows how even eating gluten free starches can affect you. I highly recommend this book for others out there who have not had good results with gluten-free foods.

  • Lisa

    Thank you SO MUCH for the incredibly informative and trustworthy article. I’ve come across this ingredient so many times, and have missed out on completely safe foods because I wasn’t sure. Foods necessary to round out an already shaky nutritional diet. SO appreciated.

  • Justin - Altos

    Thank you!

  • Justin - Altos

    Btw, I love your product.

  • Modified Food Starch

    Modified food starch is a food thickening agent that provides good texture, moisture, taste, and expansion regulation for snacks, soups, batters and sauces.

  • Rick Forbiside

    There are these chickens roasted in my local market, ready to eat. They look fabulous and only have a few ingredients, which of course makes it healthier. However, modified food starch is one of them. Why would they use it on a chicken, and do you think it would contain wheat or just corn?

  • Mike

    Thanks for all of the informative information. I have “DH” which is a derivative of Celiacs Disease so I am on a gluten free diet. I wondered about modified food starch and this blog has been elightening. If I understand the facts, modified food starch is gluten free UNLESS the manufacturer indicates wheat was used as a modifier.

  • Steve A

    I noticed that many of the symptoms listed in the comments above are similar to MSG symptoms. There are so many forms of MSG used in foods now that you’d have to be a chemist to notice. So as I do research on Gluten free eating, MSG and so on, every time I come across a food additive known to contain gluten or MSG is some form I add that name to my list in Evernote on my smart phone so when I am shopping I can check ingredients against my list. Modified Food Starch may indeed contain gluten and the manufacturer may not list it simply because there are no inspectors with the FDA to check it and only a tiny penalty for a violation.

  • Mary

    anyone heard of Dr. Osborne?? I follow his websight, and he has proven that corn, has “corn gluten”, I have stopped eating all corn, including anything with corn starch.. and feeling better!

  • Maxine stokes

    I’m new @ this,but I’m learning a great deal no thanks to the 2 specialist that I went to,I’ve been suffering for 1 year, and I’m sick and tired of being sick.My dentist was the one that diagnosed me,his wife was suffering from the same disease,He told me to eliminate the gluten from my diet,I thought wheat, barely,oats,I had no clue gluten was in so many foods,from seasonings to candy, so I kept getting sicker,I read all labels, if I’m not sure of an ingredient I check online,@ one point I was afraid to eat anything that was not a fruit or veggie.I came to this site because I saw modified food starch & soybean oil listed in caned tomato sauce and chili,Thank you for researching & sharing this info,I’ve been enlighten and informed by you and some of the folks that left comments.

  • Janet

    confused because my bread from doctors contain wheat starch and iv been vomiting

  • Www.mumbo.info

    A “starch free diet” is the only way to go. Its not even just a diet, its a lifestyle. Starch is bad, flour and grains are bad for the human body – very hard to process. Hope on the starch free diet, you won’t regret it.

  • Hoppypoppy

    perhaps it is not gluten you are reacting to in the Diet Sunkist but ASPARTAME, which also can cause digestive issues. Research it, you will find a lot of bad information about aspartame.

  • BRadebach

    You may also find that the dye’s in many drinks and medicines, etc will upset the tummy. Yellow #5 and Red food dyes are a few of the most common.

  • Sharla

    The US should take the approach that Argentina has!!! But if our country can’t tax it they really don’t give a rats rump what happens to the Celiac population.

  • Jan Lovern

    Wish I lived in Argentina!

    It’s a zoo up here in the state of Washinton.Visited Nova Scotia and it was heaven to me!Walked into a cafe and a sign said “special today gluten free melted cheese sandwitch….glory be!!
    Jan

  • Nathan

    Absolutely agree with you, Rachel. Modified food starch is a huge no-no for me. Throws me into the worst stomach pains, mind fog, etc. Lost 3 days of my life this week from a sauce I thought was safe — but ended up having modified food starch.

  • Gayle

    I too have stayed away from any MFS I have found that I get sick from eating products that have it in them. Stay away from them unless they state that they are tapioca or corn starch which some companies have been doing.

  • Rianna

    MFS has always been a problem for me since I found out I was Celiac. I would have no idea why I hurt after eating foods, esp soups, with MFS. It hurts more than taking a bite out of a piece of bread. Just recently I ate some amazingly delicious soup, but my stomach started hurting shortly after. I had to really read the label and I found MFS ;( The only allergy info it listed was milk, which doesn’t affect me the way gluten does.

  • Jeffrey

    Thats because you’re misinformed. MFS is a pure carbohydrate. It doesn’t contain any protein, by definition. The fact is that any food that contains MFS is highly processed, and that’s what your body is reacting to.

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