The hunt for functional starches that perform beyond what traditional cereal-based starches deliver led to the development and use of starches from crops such as peas and chickpeas. Already popular as sources of plant protein, these ingredients have been in use for many years now. However, as the plant-based trend continues to grow and expand, so does the need for additional, increasingly specific functions from starches, gums, and fibers. This is most strongly evidenced by the rush to create better analogs and replacements for animal-sourced meat and dairy products.

Leading the category are starches and gums derived from tropical plants such as tapioca (also known as manioc or cassava), green bananas and plantains, konjac (Amorphophallus konjac), and, more recently, tropical seeds such as lotus seed and jackfruit seed. These have cropped up as sources of starches possessing chemical compositions that are similar to waxy corn, and without any “off” or uncharacteristic flavors. Such sources also are benefitting, too, from their inherent non-GMO and gluten-free status, with many of them boasting additional cachet from recognized health benefits.

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The growing interest in resistant starches is leading to increased interest in starches such as glucomannan, (processed from konjac, a bulbous tuber similar to the yam), and galactomannan — a versatile seed polysaccharide that occurs naturally in locust bean, guar, tara, and fenugreek seeds. Many of these new sources also are favored as replacements for certain modified starches that might not always fit clean-label parameters. They also are known for their myriad healthful benefits.


West Meets East

Roots and tubers have long been sources of starches for various indigenous populations around the world. A number of Asian sources for starches and flours with long histories in their native countries are being “rediscovered” by Western product developers. Taro and tapioca starches were the vanguards, having been used in mainstream food manufacturing for decades. But in recent years they opened the door to similar starch sources, such as from burdock root, sago, jackfruit, and others.

Flour from burdock (Arctium lappa) is high in dietary fiber, especially fructo-oligosacchrides that are prebiotic — i.e., ideal food for digestive health-supporting Bifidobacteria. Burdock root flour may be used to replace up to 5% of the flour in cookies and non-risen bakery items. Such products have been appearing as low-cost, long shelf life convenient digestives used as alternatives to nutrition bars and breakfast cereals and providers of prebiotic fiber.

Sago starch is produced from the trunk of the true sago palm (Metroxylon sagu) which is native to Southeast Asia. It has a rich history of use in making porridge, noodles, buns, puddings, fishcakes, and crackers. It is a highly sustainable source of the prebiotic resistant starch and has immense appeal as a clean label, novel starch. Sago starch’s swelling pattern, in combination with its peak viscosity, makes it ideal as a gluten-free food thickener.

Lotus starch has long been used in Asian cooking. Flour from the root makes a good thickener for soups and sauces, and starch from the seed is used in the production of traditional confectionery products. Lotus starch is emerging as part of a new ingredient system when blended with hydrocolloids like gum Arabic, carrageenan, guar gum, and xanthan. The resulting combinations show a greater solid-like behavior with retained moisture and are perfect in confectionery, as they can form ordered structures that give a marshmallow-like texture.


New World Starches

Asia isn’t the only continent providing new sources of starches, gums, and fibers. Europe, Africa, and South America have their own traditional, indigenous plants that provide these staple ingredients. From the Mediterranean region, canary seed starch is a newcomer that only recently received GRAS status from the FDA and approval as a novel food by Health Canada.

Although technically the seed of canary grass (Phalaris canariensis), it is considered a true cereal grain. It is high in protein content compared to other cereal grains such as oats, barley, wheat, and rye, and unlike those grains it is gluten-free. Its low amount of damaged starch and amylose, and better gel stability, make it a promising nonconventional starch source.

Canary seed starch granules are small and easily digestible, although they also have a higher tendency to retrograde into RS, making them more available for digestion by gut microflora. The starch shows unique viscoelastic characteristics that make it suitable as an excellent replacement for wheat starch in gluten free applications. Canary seed oilcake is a rich source of protein and dietary fiber that can replace the base flour in digestive cookies without negatively affecting taste, texture, or light golden color. 

Squash (Cucurbita maxima) are universal, but flour from squash seeds has been commonly used in Central and South America for millennia. Squash seed flour contributes high value proteins, unsaturated fatty acids, alpha-galactosides with prebiotic activity, antioxidant phenolic compounds, and a total dietary fiber content that also increases the browning index.

South American tara seed starch is obtained by grinding the endosperm of the seeds of Caesalpinia spinose, yielding polysaccharides of high molecular weight composed mainly of galactomannans. It is soluble in water, and GRAS in foods as an adjunct to formulation, stabilizer and thickener. Tara is being explored as a stabilizer, thickener, emulsifier, and gelatinizing agent in ice cream, sausages, confectionery, beverages, and dairy products.


Fruits and Veggies

Starches and fibers make up the majority of the dry weight of vegetables and fruits, so it’s no surprise that clever processors are taking advantage of this when it comes to crafting alternatives to grain-derived ingredients. One of the best examples of this is the recent rise of the cauliflower in products ranging from pizza crusts to sweet baked goods to snack chips and crackers.

Freeze-dried cauliflower has a mild flavor and an ability to blend easily to make favorite foods such as spaghetti, mac ’n cheese, and cakes with high nutritional benefits. It is low in calories, high in vitamin C, and a good source of folic acid and fiber. Heat treating the cauliflower before drying may be necessary for some formulations in order to reduces its natural sulfurous notes.

Pineapple pomace, steamed under pressure and freeze-dried or air-dried, is a dietary fiber concentrate with processing and organoleptic properties particularly suitable for processed meats. In sausage and other comminuted meat applications, pineapple pomace fiber offers bulking of the sausage base without negatively affecting the shear force texture or bite quality during eating, or shrinkage during cooking.

Ignited by the demand for products to meet such stringencies as clean label, sustainable, fair trade, natural, non-GMO, and gluten-free parameters, ingredient developers will continue to explore the countless species of edible grains, seeds, roots, and tubers to introduce more such starches and fibers into mainstream use. The diversity of plants used as food on six continents promises thousands of such prospects.

Originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Prepared Foods as Heavy Starch.