Modified food starch is an ingredient used by food manufacturers for a variety of uses such as thickening, stabilizing, emulsifying, and binding. Modified food starch is often found in foods such as soups, ice cream, salad dressings, pudding mixes, and frozen foods. As the name implies, the food is modified through a chemical process that creates desired physical properties like the ability to enhance viscosity or thickening performance, which the normal starch does not naturally have. It’s also used as an anti-caking agent. For example, it’s common to find modified potato starch in a can of mixed nuts.
But the term “modified food starch” has just enough ambiguity to raise eyebrows as to whether it’s gluten-free or not, and can throw the unsuspecting gluten-free beginner off track. The word “food” in this ingredient should immediately raise a red flag, because it does not reveal what food is used in its name.
Fortunately, modified food starch in North America has a considerable degree of gluten-free safety because it’s usually made from corn or potato and even tapioca. Plus, new food labeling laws require that food manufacturers disclose the source of the food used to make the starch. But, you must always be on guard for this ambiguous starch because it can be made from wheat. European countries typically use wheat starch. And Canada does not permit a product to be labeled gluten-free if it contains modified wheat starch.
Therefore, it’s important to read ingredients lists carefully for modified food starch. If the product is made in America, you are probably safe, but may want to call the food manufacturer to confirm. If the product is imported from Europe and the ingredient label lists modified food starch, you will want to be more cautious because it will probably be made from wheat and won’t be disclosed as the source on the label. And unlike research that suggests maltodextrin made from wheat renders the gluten undetectable, the process by which modified wheat starch is made is questionable in scientific circles. The modifying process can leave behind traces of gluten, and it’s debated whether the residual gluten ppm (parts per million) is safe or not for the celiac community. Until further research is conducted, it’s safe to avoid modified wheat starch whether you find it as an ingredient in a product made in the United States or find it listed as modified food starch in products imported from Europe.