Whether you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, wheat products are completely off-limits because they all contain gluten… Or do they? Wheat starch is a somewhat confusing ingredient because, while it does contain wheat, it often doesn’t contain gluten.
So, what is wheat starch and it is safe for people who have celiac disease? Keep reading to learn more about the gluten free wheat starch debate and what to look for when reading food labels.
What is Wheat Starch, Anyway?
If you do any gluten free baking for yourself, you’ll likely come across a variety of flours and starches in your favorite recipes. Some common gluten free flours include almond flour, coconut flour, and rice flour while common starches include cornstarch, tapioca starch, and potato starch. But what is the difference between a flour and a starch?
Both flours and starches start with the same raw ingredient – some kind of grain, such as wheat. Where things change is in processing the grain to produce the end result. Flours go through some level of processing, but it is fairly minimal, especially for whole grains – whole grain flours still contain carbohydrate, protein, and fiber. Starches go through extra processing to remove these substances which leaves them almost completely devoid of nutrition.
Wheat starch is simply a starch made from the processed endosperm of the wheat grain. It is likely processed by dissolving the water-soluble starch and then evaporating the water, the end result being a fine powdery starch. Because the gluten proteins have been removed, wheat starch does not lend any elasticity to dough – it is primarily used as a thickener.
Wheat Free vs. Gluten Free
One thing to keep in mind when talking about wheat starch versus wheat flour is that gluten free does not necessarily mean wheat free, and vice versa. Remember, wheat starch is made from the same grain as wheat flour, it just goes through extra processing. This means that people who are intolerant or allergic to wheat – even if they are not sensitive to gluten – could have a negative reaction.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten. When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, their immune system launches an attack against what it perceives as a foreign invader and, in the process, accidentally damages healthy intestinal tissue as well. A wheat allergy is an immune response as well, but the reaction is different – it causes nausea, vomiting, hives, coughing, headings, and swelling of the throat. For a person with a wheat allergy, consuming wheat could lead to a fatal anaphylactic reaction.
Because wheat starch comes from wheat, it may surprise you to know that it is actually a common ingredient in gluten free foods. Many food manufacturers in the U.K. and EU have been using it for years to improve the flavor and texture of their products. Gluten free companies in the United States are now following suit.
When a food product is made with gluten free wheat starch, it must be listed in the ingredients even if it is gluten free – wheat must also appear in the allergen statement. If the ingredients list shows just the word “starch,” it is likely referring to cornstarch which is naturally gluten free. Just to be safe, however, you should double-check any product that contains flours or starches to ensure that the product is certified gluten free and safe to eat.
How Does it Compare to Cornstarch?
Gluten free wheat starch is also known as Codex wheat starch, so you may see it listed either way on a food label. Again, if it is simply listed as “starch,” it is likely cornstarch. But how is cornstarch different from wheat starch, and why would you choose one over the other?
Both wheat starch and cornstarch are very fine, powdery white substances used in baking recipes. They are primarily used as thickeners, though they may also improve the texture of certain foods. Wheat starch is also commonly used in sweeteners such as maltodextrin, dextrose, and glucose syrup. This is why some foods sweetened with wheat starch may cause a reaction in very sensitive individuals if the wheat starch is not certified gluten free.
Wheat starch and cornstarch can be used in much the same way, but they respond differently in different recipes. Cornstarch breaks down at a lower temperature than wheat starch, so it may be better for thickening soups and sauces then in baked goods that are cooked at high temperatures. Cornstarch also has a finer texture and dissolves more easily in liquid, but it doesn’t take well to reheating. Wheat starch can also be used as a stabilizer for things like puddings and sauces.
What Gluten Free Products Use Wheat Starch?
Although gluten free wheat starch has been approved by the FDA, there is still a great deal of skepticism about it. It may comfort you to know, however, that the use of wheat starch in gluten free foods has been rigorously tested. In fact, Schär has been using it for over 20 years. When gluten free wheat starch enters the Schär facility, it goes through additional testing using the ELISA method to ensure it meets standards. In fact, more than 90% of the wheat starch Schär uses tests below 5ppm.
Research has shown no evidence that foods made with gluten-removed wheat starch are harmful to people with celiac disease. In one study conducted by the Tampere University Hospital in Finland, participants were divided into two groups – one consumed naturally gluten free foods and the other consumed gluten free foods made with wheat starch. After one year, both groups showed similar results on various tests as well as self-reported symptoms.
Because the use of wheat starch in gluten free foods is still hotly debated, there are only a handful of commercial gluten free food products on grocery store shelves that list it as an ingredient. One example is Schär’s Gluten Free Croissants. Available in two varieties, these gluten free croissants are light and flaky with an authentic and fresh-baked flavor you’ll fall in love with after one bite.
The Bottom Line
The truth of the matter is that it is entirely your choice which food products you do and do not eat.
For the most part, wheat starch can be considered a safe ingredient as long as it is labeled gluten free. You still need to do your due diligence in reading food labels, but as long as a product is certified gluten free it is safe to eat.