Modified Food Starch is made by physically, enzymatically or chemically altering starch to change its inherent properties. In this instance, modified does not necessarily mean genetically modified, however some modified starches are likely made from genetically modified ingredients. Modified starches are typically used in foods for the same reasons as conventional starches—thickening, stabilizing or emulsifying. Some of the properties gained by changing the original starch can include the ability to stand different temperatures (excessive heat, freezing, etc), increase the shelf life of the desired property (for example, it will keep thickening the sauce for a longer time than its conventional counterpart), alter their thickening ability and shorten the thickening time (for example a modified starch may thicken a sauce much faster than its conventional counterpart).
The most common types of modified food starch are made from corn, wheat, potato and tapioca. Typically labels will list the source from which the starch was modified as Modified Corn Starch, however unless it is derived from one of the top eight allergens (in this case wheat), it is not required by law to be listed this way. Most modified starches are gluten free, except for those that use wheat starch as a base. There is some controversy about whether modified wheat starch really does contain gluten, however. Our opinion? Why risk it?
Modified starches are often used in foods that promote themselves as “instant” and in foods that might need a certain temperature to thicken (during cooking or freezing). Think of gravy packets, instant puddings, and those meals that come in a box and require a minimum amount of cooking or simply need boiling water. These days you can find modified starch in almost every processed food. Check the ingredient lists- it’s there.
We hope this helps clear up a little label confusion for you. If you have any more label mysteries that you’d like us to solve, tell us in the comments.