Traditional sources for starches, gums, and flours are experiencing a shift in focus as the industry seeks new ingredients to satisfy consumers. As interest in healthier products, increased protein composition, and cleaner labels increases, natural ingredients and gluten-free options are in high demand.

So, too, interest in sources of core flours and starches beyond the traditional wheat, oats, and corn also is being driven by health considerations and flavor. Flours from ancient grains and seeds tend to have higher protein and mineral content, and more flavor to serve the more complex flavor notes of the global cuisine trend.

New ingredients in this category entering the marketplace to offer increased functionality and address taste and texture issues occurring in early-stage gluten-free research and development projects. One of the most sustainable, gluten-free, protein-rich alternatives to wheat flour is chickpea flour.

Researchers and faculty from Oregon State University’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences explain “Chickpea plants are agricultural workhorses with root nodules that can fix most of the soil nitrogen needed for growth from atmospheric nitrogen. Recent research shows that chickpea can fix more nitrogen than other pulse crops, thus enhancing soil fertility for subsequent crops.”

This capacity for natural nitrogen fixation reduces the overall need for chemical fertilizers and can improve yields of subsequent crops such as wheat. This makes such ingredients attractive from a clean-label perspective as well.

New milling techniques have made it possible for some chickpea flours to completely replace wheat flour in some formulations. The functionality with this ingredient, however, is reminiscent of a modified food starch. It has superior capacity to act as a fat replacer or dairy replacer while maintaining mouthfeel. Such next-generation chickpea flour has shown a capacity to work especially well in gluten-free pasta formulations, offering elasticity in production that other gluten-free flours don’t.

Nutritionally, chickpea flours contain fewer calories and carbohydrates and are higher in protein than wheat flour. Some forms even offer 12g or more of protein per serving. This makes them favored ingredients for baked goods, baby foods, toddler snacks, and nutritional products. Chickpea flours also work well as a binder in meat products, such as sausages, meatballs, nuggets and patties, and deli meats.

Natural Nectar Inc. markets gluten-free croutons with a plant-based value proposition emblazoned on its principal display panel touting “made from legumes; 50% garbanzo bean.” Banza LLC offers chickpea pastas nationwide in a variety of formats (both longs and extruded), with a promise of “double the protein, four times the fiber, and nearly half the net carbs” of traditional wheat noodles.

A significant hurdle for the widespread acceptance of chickpeas in formulation was a tendency toward off flavors. However, new technologies reduce the amount of oil during the milling process, producing a more neutral flavor profile similar to that of wheat flour.

Reducing the oil content reduces the risk of rancidity in the raw ingredient and finished product. According to Pulse Canada, micronization or thermal processing of pulse-derived flours and starches can improve stability and ward off oxidation to keep off notes at bay.


Natives Are Friendly

Native starches from potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other roots and tubers are making inroads where starches and flours from grains, seeds, and nuts can’t go. With the growth of allergen-free formulations, these flour and starch sources also benefit from production technology that has allowed them to act as drop-in replacements.

Other advantages of native starches include high functionality and a clean, neutral flavor. By definition unmodified, the new generation of native starches is crafted using technology that has expanded the ingredients’ functionality to rival that of many chemically modified starches.

High-amylose resistant starch from maize has been well-regarded in the industry for both functional properties in applications and impressive health properties. As a starch, resistant starch from maize has a low water-holding capacity. Native starch from corn offers processors an organic, non-GMO ingredient that still can be labeled as corn starch.

Smooth and flavorless, this resistant starch can be used to enhance textural properties and its expansion properties can increase volume in risen products by about 3%. But this starch behaves like a fiber in vivo, where replacement of about 25% of the wheat flour in a product formulation won’t alter final product appearance, flavor, or texture, yet allows a high fiber claim.

The reputation of resistant starch was enhanced further in 2016 when the FDA approved a qualified health claim for high-amylose maize resistant starch as helping to improve insulin sensitivity and lower the risk of type 2 diabetes in some subjects. With its non-GMO status, the starch meets a number of the demands of both manufacturers and consumers.

High protein can be a disadvantage for some formulations, such as risen baked products, as it renders them tough and heavy. A low-protein rice starch can be incorporated into the mix to help solve this challenge. As a white, gluten-free, allergen-free ingredient with a neutral flavor, it can help processors create products where final color and flavor give little leeway for variation.

High-performing native rice starches also qualify as “natural” and “clean label” while holding up to, and providing stability for, processes involving high temperature, high shear, and low pH. Desserts, infant foods, and dairy or dairy analog formulas benefit from these multipurpose flours and starches.


Today’s Tapioca

Whether labeled as cassava, tapioca, yuca, or manioc, starches and flours derived from this versatile root provide another gluten-free option for consumers. (Technically, tapioca is the term used for the starch from the cassava root.) This functional source of flour and starch has a solid history as a stabilizer and texturizer. Cassava is a hardy crop and is able to thrive in harsh conditions.

Flours and starches from cassava offer a number of functional benefits, including the ability to replace the binding properties of wheat gluten. It has a neutral flavor profile and an economical ingredient cost. Cassava starch contains 15-18% amylose and 85-92% amylopectin polymer. is lower in amylose starch than wheat or waxy maize, and offers functionality as a stabilizer and thickener.

It provides the viscosity and gel strength of modified starches, helping to create products with a smooth texture without gelling or syneresis. These capacities also lead to enhanced texture stability and improved freeze/thaw performance.

Brazil has a centuries-old tradition of tapioca use. This influence was singled out by Gerry Ludwig, executive chef of Gordon Foodservice Inc., in his presentation, “Culinary Trends at Street Level” at the Research Chefs Association conference this year. Highlighting new concepts, growing ingredients, and trending flavor profiles, Ludwig included increased application of Brazilian tapioca among his predictions for emerging innovation.

A common Brazilian treat is tapioca crêpes. These differ from traditional French crêpes in the consistency of the batter and the way the batter hits the pan. Brazilian crêpes typically are composed of tapioca flour, salt, and water. The batter is then sieved through fine mesh to provide a granular consistency similar to wet sand. The granulated dough produces light and crispy crêpes that can be filled with a variety of sweet or savory ingredients.

Brazilian cheese rolls, or pão de queijo, are another Brazilian tapioca-based specialty. They’ve experienced a boom in popularity in the US, hitting supermarket shelves nationwide. Forno De Minas Alimentos SA, a Brazilian company with a fully owned subsidiary in the US, offers a ready-to-cook frozen product made of tapioca starch, eggs, minas cheese, oil, butter, and whey.


Triple Threat

Coconut water and coconut oil have trended quickly to become mainstream ingredients in products crowding US supermarket shelves. Extending coconut’s grocery aisle domination is coconut flour. Coconut flour can be economically produced as a by-product of the coconut milk industry, offering a value-added vertically integrated new revenue stream to manufacturers.

According to Future Market Insights (FMI), “The global coconut flour market is slated to exhibit a CAGR of 6.6% in terms of value during the forecast period 2017 – 2027.” Coconut flour is making inroads into a variety of bakery applications. The US currently accounts for 37% of the global market share for coconut flour and the millennial generation is primarily responsible for that.

Coconut flour is defatted and ground into a fine powder. A rich source of fiber, it is gluten free and does have a higher fat content than grain, seed, and root flours. This leads to it retaining a slight coconut flavor.

Although this makes it suitable for most sweet applications, the added flavor can easily be masked by other flavors in a formulation. Cappello’s LLC uses coconut flour in its gluten-free, grain-free pizza crust system, along with arrowroot, to provide a lighter texture. The formulation also includes psyllium husk as a binding agent.

Because of its high fiber level, coconut flour is far more hydroscopic than other flours, especially wheat flour. Formulators looking to replace existing flours with coconut flour are advised to adjust liquid and fat content in applications accordingly.


Going Green

Another option for developers striving to remove gluten or looking to achieve a clean, consumer-friendly label is to harness the functionality of green banana flour. The “functional fruit” is a starch with a chemical composition similar to waxy corn, i.e., 75-80% long-chain amylopectin and 20-25% amylose.

Green banana flour is a good option for bakery applications such as muffins, breads, or cakes, as well as nutritional bars or beverages. It has shown excellent ability to replace sugar solids in a 30% reduced-sugar fruit roll-up snack. Green banana flour can provide stability and viscosity in creamy salad dressings, and when baked into gluten free breads, green banana flour resulted in a higher rise and enhanced structure during the baking process.

It should be stressed that green banana flour has no banana flavor and is not sweet in taste. As a bland ingredient with no flavor- or aroma-altering properties, it is suitable for both sweet and savory formulations.

A Brazilian research team, led by Renata Zandonadi, PhD, at the department of nutrition of the University of Brasilia, Brazil, evaluated the sensory and functional differences between wheat-based pasta and pasta made with green banana flour. “There was no significant difference between the modified pasta and standard samples in terms of appearance, aroma, flavor, and overall quality,” Zandonandi reports.

The study also concluded that green bananas are considered a sub-product with low commercial value. Thus, there is significant opportunity to expand the market with economical solutions for gluten-free products.

Gums and starches can work in tandem to build structure in gluten-free baked items.

As noted previously, food technology professionals are well-versed on the functional benefits of resistant starches. Now, the general population is also getting up to speed on the unique benefits of these compounds, and consumers are actively seeking products offering the benefits.

The benefits in feeding bacteria within the intestinal microbiome are expanding outside of medicine and academia to layman social circles where health-conscious consumers are taking note. Because green banana is rich in resistant starch, it is becoming popular in health food and specialty markets and is poised for growth in mainstream product development.

Green banana flour offers type-2 resistant starch benefits when used in cold-processed applications, but the benefits deteriorate as heat is applied.


Gum Control

Like starches, gums are polysaccharide carbohydrates that perform multiple functions in foods and beverages. Their primary uses are for gelling, thickening, and stabilizing formulations, so they are typically used only in small amounts. Guar gum, locust bean gum, and xanthan gum are “old reliables” found in multiple products. The latter is especially favored as an additive to gluten-free flour mixtures to help compensate for the functionality of gluten.

Another food gum, the hydrocolloid carrageenan, is commonly used as a vegetarian substitute for animal-derived gelatin. It has a long history of effective use in dairy products and sauces as a thickener and stabilizer.

The ingredient had experienced a dip in use due to a negative campaign that singled it out as potentially harmful, despite the fact that comprehensive reviews, including a two-part critical review of in vitro and in vivo studies published in 2014 in Critical Reviews in Toxicology, found no evidence of deleterious effects on health. Earlier this year, the USDA re-approved the natural seaweed extract for use in products labeled as organic.

Acacia gum, also known as gum arabic, is an all-natural, organic-certified hydrocolloid offering high fiber content and high digestive tolerance in gluten-free products. The functional benefits of acacia gum for developers include ease of use, solubility in water, low viscosity and hygroscopicity, heat stability, and high tolerance at low pH.

Acacia gum is used for emulsification and stabilization, encapsulation of flavors, formation of films and coatings, mouthfeel enhancement, and bonding. As millennial consumers continue to seek socially responsible products, acacia gum checks off boxes for environmental, social, and economic sustainability. Growing acacia trees serves regions by preventing desertification and deforestation.

Acacia gum is a form of resin that gathers at the surface of a tree after the bark is removed. An acacia tree can produce about 400g of acacia gum per year. The Sahelian region of Africa is the primary growing region for acacia gum, so much so that it is known colloquially as the “Gum Belt.” Training programs in the region are improving the efficacy of farming and harvesting methods and providing economic opportunities for farmers.

Acacia gum also is used in health foods as a source of soluble fiber with potential prebiotic properties. In addition, it might lower the glycemic index of a finished product by reducing the rate of sugar resorption.

Similar to acacia is karaya gum, also known as Indian tragacanth, from the Terculia urens tree. While not to be confused with another vegetable gum, Astragalus, or “tragacanth,” this natural, clean-label, water-soluble polysaccharide is commonly used as an emulsifier in foods. It is odorless and tasteless and typically has high digestive tolerance.


Pectin Beyond Jams

Pectin is often linked to its functionality in jams and jellies, but the largest opportunity for growth for this throwback polysaccharide is in nutritional beverages such as smoothies, drinkable yogurts, natural teas, kefirs, real fruit juices with pulp, and kombucha.

These beverages can benefit from the versatility and functionality of pectin’s part in creating a short, yet stretchy texture. Pectin binds water, provides stability, and offers a satisfying mouthfeel experience, even in low-sugar systems.

Pectin is also popular in frozen confections and is the backbone ingredient to gummies in both food and health categories, where the vegan claim of pectin is favorable over gelatin. Pectin is a soluble dietary fiber with cholesterol-reducing potential, as it is a natural fiber. It typically is derived from apple pomace and the peels of citrus fruits.

This also means pectin can present consumers a clear, familiar, transparent label declaration. Lifeway Foods Inc. leverages the functional benefits of pectin in its drinkable kefir line, and Stonyfield Farms Inc. uses pectin in many of its yogurt products, including those marketed for children.

All-natural, clean-label formulations have surpassed being a trend to become a mandatory expectation for most consumers. Product developers are expanding their toolboxes to include more functional ingredients to meet aggressive market demands for transparency and optimal health benefits. In turn, ingredient suppliers are investing in research and development to deliver native starches, flours, and gums with better form and function in a growing list of applications. 

Originally appeared in the June, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Starches, Flours, and Gums Go Big.