Corn starch is one of those ingredients in recipes that usually deters me from making it. Maybe it’s the notion of what it does to water or the fact that I had never really thought about what it actually was. Either way, it’s always kind of weirded me out.
I got an email from a reader a couple of weeks ago about cornstarch.
“I’m trying to make an effort to eat better and cut out as many processed foods from my diet as possible. Since then, I’ve gotten interested in reading ingredient labels and noticed my yogurt had modified corn starch listed in the top 5 ingredients. Would you consider cornstarch unhealthy?”
Apparently I’m not the only one weirded out by cornstarch. This question got me interested in figuring out what exactly corn starch is and how it might contribute nutritionally to foods we buy or recipes we make.
What is cornstarch?
It seems simple enough. Cornstarch is starch that’s derived from corn. It’s made from the tiny white endosperm at the heart of a corn kernel. To get to the endosperm, the kernels are processed so all of the outside shells removed. The endosperms are ground up into the fine white, gritty powder we know as cornstarch. The key word here is processed.
How is it used?
- Thickener: Cornstarch is used frequently as a thickener when cooking in things likes sauces, gravies and even yogurt. It thickens almost twice as much as flour and thickens clear in liquids rather than opaque.
- Baked goods: Cornstarch is also gluten free and is frequently used in baked goods to give structure to give them more fullness and moisture.
- Fried foods: It’s occasionally added to batters to give fried foods a light and crispy texture.
Is cornstarch unhealthy?
Tough question. Do you consider white rice or Wonder Bread unhealthy? Those are also processed starches. Some might not consider them unhealthy but when it comes down to it, cornstarch doesn’t add any sort of nutritional value to foods other than calories – which most of us get more than enough of anyway. I consider healthy foods to be those that give me good stuff like fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. Simple sugars are important for energy (calories) but there are plenty of truly healthy energy-containing foods that also have lots of good nutrients and fiber.
You can avoid unnecessary cornstarch (calories) by reading food labels carefully. Most yogurts have thickeners, whether corn starch, pectin or something similar, but Greek yogurt is incredibly thick and doesn’t have any. You can alternative thickeners when cooking at home. Which brings me to my next question…
What are some healthier alternatives to using cornstarch? If you’re worried about GMOs or pesticides, there are a few brands of organic cornstarch out there. If you’re looking for actual substitutes, there are quite a few!
- Heat reduction: Good ol’ evaporation will thicken anything you are trying to cook. Simmer sauces uncovered, over low/medium-low heat for a period of time and your sauce will be thicker.
- Pureed vegetables: Things like tomato paste, cooked zucchini, eggplant, cauliflower, squash and pumpkin get very soft when cooked and are easy to puree with a blender, food processor or potato-masher. These types of vegetables are lower in carbohydrates than starches like potatoes and corn and will actually increase the nutritional goodness of your recipes, since they also contain healthy vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Pureed veggies are great for thickening sauces, homemade soups, casseroles.
- Vegetable gums: They sound gross but this is essentially soluble fiber that absorbs water and thickens into. Pectin has almost 1/3 of the calories and 2 grams of fiber per tablespoon. Two of the most common are guar gum and xanthan gum.
- Flour: It’s still a processed grain but adding whole wheat flour instead of white will at least bring some B vitamins and fiber to the dish.
- Sour cream or Greek yogurt: Reduced-fat sour cream or plain Greek yogurt are already thick. Greek yogurt can get a bit clumpy if heated in a soup, so you might do better with sour cream with hot recipes like soups.
- Flax seed meal: I love me some ground flax seed but it is a bit gritty, so it works better as an egg substitute or when added to smoothies, oatmeal, and baked goods.
- Nut butters: A good source of healthy fats, fiber, protein – just choose unsalted so you’re not adding additional sodium to the dish.