Is Cornstarch Bad For Me?

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.

Cornstarch

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.
What nutrition does it provide?

Cornstarch is essentially a highly processed carbohydrate. It packs about 30 calories or 7 grams of carbohydrate per tablespoon. There’s no protein, fat, vitamins, minerals or fiber. When added to recipes, it can add significant calories that you may normally not consider because it’s similar in color and texture to baking soda or baking powder which are essentially calorie-free.

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.
In general, I think avoiding cornstarch in large quantities or in processed foods might be a good idea because it is calorically dense, however I might not be so quick to rule out trying a new recipe if it only calls for a tablespoon or two, now that I know what it is.
I hope this demystifies the creepiness of cornstarch – I know I sure learned a lot. :) Thanks again for all the great questions guys! I love learning new things and sharing them with you.
What are your thoughts on cornstarch or other thickeners? Do they weird you out too?
How do you like to thicken recipes when you cook?

28 Comments on Is Cornstarch Bad For Me?

  1. Nicole B.
    October 1, 2014 at 4:43 pm (2 months ago)

    I’ve been trying to avoid cornstarch for many of the same reasons. I would love to know if anyone has tried alternatives for cornstarch on recipes like baked sweet potato fries. I’ve had it with cornstarch which gives the outside a nice crispy texture and without it, it’s just not the same. But I eat these fries way to frequently so I need an alternative. Any ideas?

    Reply
  2. Ravi
    September 6, 2014 at 6:23 pm (3 months ago)

    I have a feeling people are trying to mix up “high fructose corn syrup” with “corn starch” (since both have the word “corn”).

    Reply
  3. ashley b
    July 22, 2014 at 11:32 pm (4 months ago)

    there is also cornstarch in many of the medications we take

    Reply
  4. AmBrew
    July 1, 2014 at 4:32 am (5 months ago)

    To me, what defines healthy/unhealthy is not only how many vitamins/minerals but the way the product has been processed. If chemicals and pesticides are used i would consider the food to be unhealthy.

    Reply
  5. wow. Thanks so much Ellen for posting this educational post on corn starch. The substitutes are awesome. I was familiar with few but not all. So the list will certainly be considered when cooking & baking.

    Reply
  6. Axel
    June 8, 2014 at 3:00 pm (6 months ago)

    Just a bit more history
    In 1967 corn starch was conquering the market and replaced natural sugar. Cornstarch has a tiny little “side effect”: It ‘tricks’ the liver to no longer signal the brain that the body is sated and turns excess food in vascular fat. That fat sits inside the body – not on top of the belly. Corn starch was so cheap to produce that it replaced sugar and obesity started to explode. While some countries ban corn starch – the corn starch industry is so strong in the US that no ban could be agreed on. Follow-on effects are heart disease and cancer. The interesting correlation is that the increase in those diseases are some of the most expensive mass diseases to cure (increase in health Care Cost) and that the US is the number one user of corn starch in the world and the number one country with heart attack fatalities and the number one with obesity.
    See health care cost increase: http://practicalanalytics.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/health-spending-trends-and-impacts-health-costs-0510121.png?w=614&h=461

    Corn consumption in the US is approximately 10 times of Europe. In some countries like Germany it is completely banned and in France just not used.

    The good news: The market in the San Francisco Ferry building banned corn fed beef. Trader Joe’s started to remove all corn starch products from their shelves – not completely yet, but it goes in the right direction.

    Reply
    • Phil
      August 6, 2014 at 8:24 pm (4 months ago)

      @AXEL. I am pretty sure you are thinking about corn SYRUP not corn STARCH. They are completely different and you are just spreading bad information.

      Reply
  7. B
    April 5, 2014 at 7:59 pm (8 months ago)

    Just so everyone is aware, most Greek yogurt has additives like pectin or starch now…

    Reply
    • Elle Penner
      April 7, 2014 at 4:37 pm (8 months ago)

      Correct! Some food manufacturers have been adding thickeners and calling it Greek-style yogurt since it’s not true Greek yogurt. They’re usually less expensive than brands like Chobani that don’t. On that note, almost all fruit-flavored yogurts have corn starch or pectin added to the fruit goop. Personally I prefer fresh or frozen fruit in my yogurt!

      Reply
  8. Lela
    March 27, 2014 at 5:24 pm (8 months ago)

    I’m disappointed to see the “exact” words you’ve submitted to not only be here but, other sites as well. Who’s the author of this article?

    Reply
  9. Kristina
    February 10, 2014 at 4:19 pm (10 months ago)

    I just looked up a recipe for orange, craisin muffins. No thank you! It called for 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of cornstarch!!! Yikes. I am sure a lot of our unhealthy indulgences contain a large amount of corn starch. Thanks for the info. Now I know better.

    Reply
  10. Sara Graham
    February 4, 2014 at 5:33 am (10 months ago)

    I have used arrowroot as a substitute…Kris Carr suggests it in her cook book.

    Reply
  11. jade
    February 1, 2014 at 8:56 pm (10 months ago)

    What about substituting corn starch with tapioca starch?

    Reply
    • norma negroni
      February 18, 2014 at 11:37 am (9 months ago)

      If cornstarch is bad ,what do you recomend,FOR example if I want to coat stuffed (papas rellenas) so when I fried them they dont fall apart

      Reply
  12. Terrina
    January 29, 2014 at 11:37 pm (10 months ago)

    I love all the alternatives that you shared. As a diabetic, I find cornstarch works better for me. Although its pure starch, it takes half as much as flour does to acomplish the same thickening. So if i want to thicken 2 cups of liquid, it takes 1 tablespoon (7 carbs) vs 2 tablespoons of flour (12 carbs). Also, its gluten free. I especially like it for gravies or sauces when I want the color to remain since it cooks up clear and won’t “cloud” the color. But more important, is that corn starch does digest more slowly (important for type 2 diabetics). As an alternative I sometimes use vegetable gum (guar gum) although the carbs are 9g per Tbs.

    Reply
  13. john k.
    January 22, 2014 at 4:13 pm (10 months ago)

    my doctor is recommending that I going alone sugar low carbohydrate diet.. Is cornstarch unhealthy for me if I’m trying to lower my sugar and carbohydrates?

    Reply
  14. Jib1001
    January 14, 2014 at 9:11 pm (10 months ago)

    i heard Twinkies also contained Cornstarch too in it’s
    Ingrendints.

    Reply
  15. Jeannie
    December 7, 2013 at 4:29 am (12 months ago)

    Corn starch when ingested is very slowly digested. This is good for me being type I diabetic. I sprinkle a tsp on my cereal, or sprinkle some on oatmeal, stir some into beanut butter. it keeps your sugars steady.
    Only thing, it has to be eaten raw and not cooked at all.

    Reply
  16. Silvia @ skinny jeans food
    August 15, 2013 at 10:02 am (1 year ago)

    Also, to think that cornstarch is likely made from genetically modified corn is another reason to stay away from it. GMO=tumors.

    Reply
    • Elizabeth
      January 26, 2014 at 2:57 am (10 months ago)

      Depends on the cornstarch. The cornstarch in something like Twinkies? Yeah, it wouldn’t surprise me. But you can get organic or other high quality cornstarch from your local coop or Whole Foods. I use just a dash with water and soy sauce to make my stir fry. It’s not something I’d say is good for you, but a teaspoon here and there isn’t going to change anything.

      Reply
  17. jill
    May 22, 2013 at 7:24 am (2 years ago)

    thank you for this article….. i am trying to get the 411 on all the ingrediants that have no obvious content…. and i am weirded out about cornstarch, especially since i swear i can tell if something has it even if it’s not known… yuk! thanx!!

    Reply
  18. Cheryl
    May 4, 2013 at 7:12 pm (2 years ago)

    You should read up on Glucomannan powder, sounds like a perfectly healthy alternative to cornstarch. Just learning about it myself which is what brought me to this page. :)

    Reply
  19. katie
    February 19, 2013 at 6:34 pm (2 years ago)

    So I have a berry pie recipe I want to make that calls for cornstarch as the thickener. Which type of thickener do you think would be the best substitute? The recipe says arrowroot powder for an alternative, have you heard of this? and if so any better health benefits than cornstarch?
    Thank you!!

    Reply
    • elle
      February 19, 2013 at 10:43 pm (2 years ago)

      I have heard of it, but don’t know much about it other than its made from a tropical root! Bob’s Red Mill makes some – which makes me feel better about it than regular old corn starch for some reason. Let me know if you try it!

      Reply
  20. Suzy
    February 12, 2013 at 12:57 pm (2 years ago)

    I don’t eat a lot of processed foods, and only use corn starch when making homemade stir fry sauces. Your post made me feel better about using it this way. I recently purchased some chia seeds and have been exploring their uses which includes use as a thickener. I haven’t tried it yet but I’m curious. Have you tried chia seeds as a thickening agent?

    Reply
  21. Jennifer L
    September 23, 2012 at 2:31 pm (2 years ago)

    interesting post…. I found a recipe that says corn starch makes for crispy sweet potato fries… I tried it and it kind of worked, but then I haven’t wanted to do it again because corn starch is creepy….

    Reply
  22. Stacy
    September 21, 2012 at 4:38 pm (2 years ago)

    It’s always seemed creepy to me too! I omitted it once. Huge mistake, but think some of these other substitutes might work okay instead! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  23. Kristen
    September 21, 2012 at 9:53 am (2 years ago)

    I used to be totally grossed out by cornstarch, too! Also refused to make any recipe that called for it (after I just omitted it once, horrible idea). But then I researched it and came to the conclusion that it is so, so processed I kind of don’t even think it matters if you buy organic or not…because it’s not even food by the time you use it, I don’t think. So, I’m with you–okay with using it tiny quantities, but still not a huge fan. Good post. :)

    Reply

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