To continue our series on food additives to avoid, Andrew continues with a look at modified food starch. “What is modified food starch?” you may ask. For a thorough explanation on what it is, and why you might not want it in your daily diet, keep reading.
Modified. Food. Starch. Three very unassuming and innocent-sounding words. What danger could there possibly be in modified food starch? I mean, it even has “food” in the title, so it must be safe for consumption, right? Well, let’s continue our journey of additives to avoid with a look at what this stuff is and what research has to say about it.
What is Modified Food Starch?
Before we can look at what “modified” food starch is, we need to know what just regular ol’ starch is. From a chemical standpoint, starch is categorized as a carbohydrate – a broad category of biological chemicals found in every living thing from bacteria to humans. Carbohydrates are put into three slightly smaller groups: monosaccharides (simple sugars like glucose and fructose), disaccharides (molecules made up of two simple sugars, like sucrose and lactose), and polysaccharides (molecules made up of many sugars). Starch is one example of this final category of carbohydrates.
If you had a powerful enough microscope to zoom in and see the structure of a starch molecule, you would find that it is a VERY long chain of sugars (more specifically, glucose molecules) all joined together in a row. It can literally be THOUSANDS of glucose molecules long. And in this, we find its primary function: a food storage molecule. Plants and animals store sugar in their bodies as starch, and then they can quickly break down the starch into sugar for energy when it is needed. And because it is such a well-designed storage molecule, we find it in pretty much every food we eat. It is natural, and it is good, when consumed as a part of the original food in which it is found—despite what the 90s fad diets vilifying carbs might otherwise say.
How is it Modified?
So, how is this efficient storage molecule “modified?” Sadly, that is not an easy question to answer. There are actually MANY ways that this starch is modified for use in processed foods. It could be treated with various acids (like hydrochloric acid), a number of different bases (like lye), bleaching agents (like peroxide), esters, oxides, and/or salts. Each of these different treatments will modify the starch in a different way to give it different properties. Using these chemicals, modified food starch can be used for more than just thickening sauces (like regular starch): it can be used as a substitute for fat in low-fat foods to keep the consistency more like the full-fat version; it can be used to keep defrosted frozen foods from dripping water; and it can be used to make things stickier. It is important to note that regardless of the type of treatment, it is always simply listed as “modified food starch” on labels.
Why Should I Avoid Modified Food Starch?
Scientists have been conducting studies on modified starches for many years (many of these studies go back to the 60s and 70s). While from a toxicology standpoint, there doesn’t seem to be a significant difference between the addition of regular starch and modified starch, the modified starches have been found to have a few notable effects on your body. Many articles (like this one) note a distinct enlargement of the first part of the large intestine in animals fed a diet that included modified food starch. It is thought that this is because these modified starches are not as easily digested by the small intestine and so are passed on undigested into the large intestine. The modified starch piles up in this first part of the large intestine causing the enlargement of the intestine itself. Whatever remains undigested contributes to loose stool and diarrhea.
Many other studies, like this one by Newberne, Conner, and Estes, show that the consumption of modified starches leads to an increase in the amount of calcium absorbed by the body. This calcium is then stored by the body in tissues surrounding the large intestine or is excreted through urine. This elevated amount of calcium has, in turn, caused possibly-irreversible lesions within the kidney.
As always, my recommendation is to eat foods in their originally-created whole form. The less processing, the better. That is the way our bodies have been designed to handle these chemicals—as part of the whole food that they came from. There are so many ways to enjoy foods naturally and wholly, ranging from the simple to prepare (like fermented pickles!) to complex recipes. Why not try your hand at it if you don’t already. After all, that is how humans have been doing it for thousands of years!
For more in the Foods to Avoid series, visit the following posts:
Andrew and Michelle are the new owners of a 12-acre homestead in rural America. They are just embarking on this journey that is far removed from their city-life upbringing, so they realize that they have a lot to learn in order to succeed in this new place.Come along with them and read more about what they learn as they make this transition at their blog Simple Life Homestead.