Convenience foods spurred the development of modified starches in the 1950s. This meant native starches were relegated to second-class status. Once valued for their thickening and textural properties, these starches— starches that have not been treated to change their inherent properties—were pushed aside by the modified starches that better withstand the rigors of modern food-processing techniques, including freeze/thaw, shear, pressure, heat, refrigeration, and other assaults, allowing them to extend product shelflife.
The most commonly used native starches in North American food processing are corn (dent, waxy maize, high amylose), potato, and tapioca. However, processors have making greater use of rice starches, especially those who develop and manufacture for the huge gluten-free channel.
Native corn starches still perform important thickening and texturizing functions in fresh foods, restaurant production, and food processing. They are favored for use in some hot-filled canning processes, where their short-term thickening capacity aids in transferring the product from the processing line to can without splashing. Potato starches, with their clarity, gloss, and neutral flavor, contribute desirable textural properties to noodles, formed potato chip products, hot dogs, bakery creams, instant soups, and gluten-free or Passover recipes that cannot contain corn or wheat derivatives.
Tapioca has little or no impact on food flavor and often is used as a thickener or stabilizer in soups, fruit pies, dairy products, puddings, soy and meat products, and sauces. Tapioca usage also is experiencing a strong growth spurt, thanks to the multi-billion-dollar gluten-free trend.
Working Class Heros
There are some restrictions to using native starches in certain formulations. Native starches don’t stand up to the performance of their younger, modified siblings. Unmodified starch granules used in a food system gradually absorb water and swell in size when heated in water, this causing the mixture to thicken; that’s a good thing, when thickening is desired. However, when exposed to continuous heat, the swollen granules burst, losing their thickening powers—a not-so-good thing. This process of granule swelling and fragmenting is called gelatinization. Once gelatinized, the granules cannot be reconstituted and no longer contribute to desirable food texture.
The classic example of undesirable gelatinization can be seen in take-out Chinese dinners left overnight in the refrigerator. The once-tasty sauce coating vegetables and protein becomes an unappetizing, gelled mess. In frozen foods, native gelatinized starch/liquid granules expand and then burst during thawing and refreezing, making for a watery product.
Still, native starches contribute to processed foods in many new ways. Two major consumer trends have revitalized interest in native starches and led to movement in new applications research and sales. Non-GMO and gluten-free foods, once considered as fads among narrow consumer groups, are true trends. A decade-plus after gaining mainstream attention, their use continues to grow—at double- digit rates—according to many industry sources.
A Marketsandmarkets.com study, published September 2015, estimated that the market for gluten-free products is projected to grow at a CAGR of 10.4% from $4.63 billion in 2015 to reach $7.59 billion in 2020. In 2014, more than half of the gluten-free products sold worldwide were sold in North America, according to the study. The most popular categories are: baked goods, pizza, pasta, cereals, snacks, and savory products.
The non-GMO food market is growing an even faster pace. As Prepared Foods reported last February (“Non-GMO Growth, Organic Label Debate,” bit.ly/249RcFZ), non-GMO food sales in 2014 were $200 billion and are expected to reach $330 billion by 2019. This 65% increase is five times that of the growth rate predicted for all food and beverage retail sales during that time span.
It should be noted that both the gluten- free and the non-GMO trends are thriving, in spite of no credible studies proving a danger from genetically modified crops. And, at best, the number of people with diagnosed medical conditions that require the elimination or reduction of gluten is about one tenth of those adhering to such a diet.
Non-GMO crops can be considerably more expensive than GMOs because of planting, handling, and storage requirements. Farmers must maintain buffer zones in their fields to prevent adventitious contamination of the crops. Also, costs escalate for equipment cleaning and product storage to ensure GM materials are not mixed in with non-GM.
Data from the Non-GMO Project show a huge increase in the number of starches that have received non-GMO verification. As of 2011, only one starch product was non-GMO verified. Today, there are 60 such products.
Growth recently exploded with 25 new registrations in 2015 and 19 in the first four months of this year. The most common verified starches are potato (16 products), wheat (13), corn (9), and tapioca (7). The rest of the verified starches are in categories with four products or less.
The majority of the companies submitting starches for Non-GMO Project verification are primarily known for their consumer brands sold in the natural/organic space, such as Bob’s Red Mill and Hodgson Mill.
It is interesting to note that most of the major starch suppliers to the food processing industry mention clean label and non-GMO in their promotional materials, but only two such companies have listings in the Non-GMO Project database.
The Non-GMO Project does not break out the number of true native starches vs. functional or modified native starches. Still, an examination of the starch products in their database shows a little more than half are functional natives, and the balance are true natives.
The non-GMO drive is so strong that a major US starch producer dedicated one of its largest plants to producing only non-GMO products. In addition to Non-GMO Project verification, the supplier also acquired a proprietary Identity Preservation program that protects non-GMO purity via global, third party-audited best practices for segregation and documentation of crops.
Some global producers also follow the widely accepted British Retail Consortium/Food and Drinks Federation Technical Standard for the Supply of Identity Preserved Non-Genetically Modified Ingredients and Products.
Suppliers are working overtime to fill the demands for non-GMO native starches, with some individual companies offering more than 40 types of native non-GMO starches, including functional native starches. Their portfolios also include a spectrum of bases, depending on functionality and labeling needs. Examples include dent corn, waxy corn, high-amylose corn, potato, tapioca, rice, waxy rice, and sago starches. These varieties have been successfully used in multiple types of applications, particularly in bakery products, snacks, batters, and breadings.
Advances in rice starch technology have brought to market a number of options for manufacturers. Functional native rice starches now are available that demonstrate high stability during processing, allowing controlled viscosity build-up. They are able to perform well, even when subjected to tough processing environments that include high temperature, high shear, and high acidic conditions. These new functional native rice starches have been used with excellent results in retorted applications, such as sauces and infant foods, as well as in dairy applications and fruit-based products. Another advantage of functional rice starches is improved shelflife and stability, while imparting a clean taste and enhanced textures, even in formulations requiring subtler creamy, soft textures.
While there currently are no GMO wheat ingredients or products in the US, when it comes to gluten-free formulating, losing the wheat is a must. It’s important to include oats, as well as barley, spelt, and other wheat relatives, in that ingredient category.
Replacing wheat in gluten-free foods, particularly baked goods, is not an easy task. In addition to wheat’s desirable flavor and nutrition profiles, it is an excellent manager of water in a formulation.
Manufacturers of gluten-free foods rely on a combination of starches and gums to mimic the texture of wheat. Native starches perform many vital functions in gluten-free foods, particularly in baking. On the processing side, native starches help achieve appropriate batter viscosity during mixing and cookie spread during baking. Key visual attributes, such as loaf volume and cell structure, also can be replicated with starches. Food scientists have made great progress in replicating the highly unique texture and mouthfeel attributed to the “toothsomeness” gluten brings to recipes (i.e., give, bite, and pull).
Most importantly, these starches, from rice, corn, tapioca, potatoes, and other sources, can improve important eating qualities, moistness, crumb, bite, and taste for the gluten-free, as well as the standard formulations in products. Potato starches, in particular, are flavor- free and high in viscosity, making them useful in bakery and snacks.
Non-wheat starches have been used in products such as breads, bagels, tortillas, pretzels, crackers, and cookies for reasons other than texturizing. They also act as part of bulk flour systems. Some of the key benefits are: cell structure enhancement, texture enhancement, moisture enhancement, freeze/thaw stability, batter viscosity, gumminess reduction, stretch and elasticity, stickiness reduction, and volume enhancement.
A relative newcomer on the gluten- free scene in the US is gluten-free wheat starch, which has been widely used in Europe for several years. The component that triggers adverse reactions in gluten-sensitive individuals is the protein or gluten, typically in wheat. Extracting the protein from wheat creates a gluten-free ingredient. A common use for gluten-free wheat starch is in doughs, where it provides some elasticity to create a lighter, flaky texture.
Despite consumer skepticism, higher costs, and misguided health imperatives, gluten-free and non-GMO foods appear to be a significant part of the food industry’s economic picture now and in the future. The expansion of these two trends is having a trickle-down impact on major North American starch producers.
The recent jump in starch ingredient sales, especially sales of native starches, can be attributed to the popularity of foods free of (i.e., “free-from”) gluten or GMOs, according to some major starch suppliers. The free-from trend also is cited as having a positive impact on current and expected growth to come. Native starch suppliers are betting on continued growth in non-GMO and gluten-free food development and manufacturing. Meanwhile, processors are taking advantage of the simultaneous increase in available technical support offered by suppliers.
Such synergies between processors and ingredient makers are remaking the product development paradigm. With teams of food scientists and culinologists on both sides of the industry collaborating on new product creation and reformulation of old favorites, consumers ultimately benefit.
The incredible variety of starch ingredients should lead to more opportunities to introduce more products, from better artisanal baked goods to crunchier, more flavorful snacks. Processors can anticipate further growth in sales that capitalize on these two important trends.
Marc Green, CBC, is a qualified B2B communications executive with decades of experience in the food processing and food ingredients markets. His creative efforts have garnered him dozens of awards, and in 2011, B2B magazine named him as one of the country’s top 25 digital marketers. As a director at National Starch Food Innovation and Ingredion Inc. for more than 25 years, he developed an intimate and comprehensive knowledge of starch ingredients and their applications in food and beverage development and manufacturing. Green now serves as senior strategist for B2B Marketing Strategies LLC. He can be reached at email@example.com or through this magazine.
Tapioca is one of the more common starches from tropical regions, but the growth in interest for native, gluten-free, and unique starch sources has led to a number of previously unfamiliar flour arrivals on the processing scene. Banana flour, coconut flour, and breadfruit (ulu)—all with long histories of use in the tropical regions—are increasingly being used in baking mixes, typically from boutique processors. The above-mentioned flours join such flours as those from legumes (peas, peanuts, red beans, lupins, chickpeas), as well as seeds (quinoa, hemp, millet, teff, chia, flax), and nuts. (While almond flour is highly familiar, now Brazil nuts and pecans have entered the nut flour scene.)
All these bring unique and individual textures and flavors to the product development table and merit attention from processors seeking the functional and marketing advantages they can provide.