A new and unlikely ingredient is making its way into a few gluten-free foods. Don’t be surprised to find wheat starch in some products in the United States.

New U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules allow wheat starch in gluten-free foods if the wheat starch is specially processed to remove gluten. Some food companies say it can improve flavor and texture in certain products.

But gluten-free consumers who have long gone by the rule that any food that contains wheat, barley or rye in any form is forbidden may have some trouble adjusting to the idea that certain kinds of wheat starch are now allowed.

It has already appeared in a chocolate and tangerine treat in one of GoPicnic’s gluten-free packaged meals. And Dr. Schär, a European company that has made foods for special diets for 93 years, will introduce gluten-free plain and chocolate-filled croissants containing wheat starch in the United States early this year. Dr. Schär currently sells gluten-free croissants in Europe that list wheat starch as a main ingredient.

Wheat starch processed to remove gluten, called Codex wheat starch, has been allowed in gluten-free food in Europe for more than a decade based on studies that show it is not harmful to those who have celiac disease. But wheat starch was not allowed in the United States until the recent finalization of the FDA rules for gluten-free foods.

Although some food companies plan to begin using wheat starch, don’t expect many to follow quickly. Overall, use of wheat starch in gluten-free food appears to be a tough sell to both food makers and consumers.


Danger signal

For decades the word “wheat” has signaled danger to anyone on a gluten-free diet. It’s of particular concern to people with celiac disease because of the damage gluten-containing grains cause to the small intestine. There’s only one effective treatment:  lifelong, complete avoidance of any food containing gluten.

Those who have gluten sensitivity do not experience intestinal damage, but they often suffer symptoms severe enough to prompt them to completely eliminate gluten-containing grains, as well.

Pam Cureton, R.D., a celiac disease specialist at the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment in Boston, teaches new patients to read ingredient labels and to avoid wheat, barley, rye, malt, brewer’s yeast and—unless the product is labeled gluten free—oats.

But she now has to make an exception for wheat starch and explain to her patients why it can be acceptable on the gluten-free diet. Whenever wheat starch is used in a food labeled “gluten free,” it must appear in the ingredients list. Wheat will also appear in the “Contains” statement if the product has one.

The label also has to say that the “wheat has been processed to allow this food to meet the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements for gluten-free foods.” When an ingredient list says only “starch,” it means cornstarch, which is naturally gluten-free, Cureton notes.

“When [gluten-free consumers] see ‘Contains wheat,’ of course they’ll put [the product] back on the shelf,” Cureton observes. “They’re hesitant to purchase even a product that says it’s manufactured in a plant that contains wheat.

“Our consumers will avoid those types of products. So a lot of education is needed to explain to them that this wheat starch has been processed to remove the protein and it must meet the standards of the FDA to be less than 20 parts per million [ppm].”

The FDA in 2013 established safety standards for gluten-free foods. Products labeled gluten free have to contain less than 20 ppm of gluten and may not be made with gluten-containing grains such as wheat or any derived ingredients that have not been processed to remove gluten.

However, foods labeled gluten free may contain a derived ingredient if it has been processed to remove gluten as long as the final food product contains less than 20 ppm. Wheat starch is an example of this kind of ingredient, along with a few others, according to the FDA.

Products made with gluten-free wheat starch are absolutely safe, says Cureton, even for people with particularly high sensitivity to gluten. Wheat starch contains such a tiny amount of gluten that it doesn’t significantly add to the gluten level in the final product. But consumers have to continue to read labels, understand what they mean, and make sure anything containing wheat starch also identifies itself as gluten-free and says that the ingredient has been processed to remove gluten.

For example, the label on a chocolate snack packet in GoPicnic’s gluten-free bean dip and tortilla chip meal includes wheat starch. The snack consists of a tangerine center, a sugar shell and dark chocolate. The ingredient list identifies “starch (Codex-approved gluten-free wheat starch)” and has additional allergen information: “contains soy and wheat starch, certified gluten-free (under 10 ppm) by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization.”

This labeling might seem wordy, but Cureton says it complies with the FDA rule for gluten-free foods. The FDA does not require—but does allow—gluten-free certification by a third party, such as the Gluten-Free Certification Organization.


European record

Wheat starch in a gluten-free food may come as a surprise to U.S. consumers, but it has an established record in Europe where Dr. Schär has used it for at least 20 years, according to Anne Lee, R.D., director of nutritional services for the company’s U.S. operations in Lyndhurst, New Jersey.

Research has found no evidence that foods containing gluten-removed wheat starch harm people with celiac disease. A 2003 study at Tampere University Hospital in Finland tracked newly diagnosed patients after they adopted a gluten-free diet.

One group of 23 randomly assigned volunteers ate only naturally gluten-free foods, while 26 also ate gluten-free products that contained wheat starch. After one year both groups showed equally good recovery based on reported symptoms and quality of life, small intestine biopsies and blood tests.

In recommending wheat starch, the authors of this study argued that minute contamination of less than 20 ppm of gluten is virtually impossible to avoid in any diet. International standards have accepted this level because it’s considered safe for the vast majority of people with celiac disease.

But some experts express skepticism. “I would not expect to see gluten-free wheat starch approved in Canada in the near future, but if the experience is a positive one in the United States, there may be a review of the situation in the mid to long term,” says Sue Newell, operations manager for the Canadian Celiac Association.

While wheat glucose syrup, wheat-based caramel and wheat maltodextrin—gluten-free derivatives allowed by Canadian labeling law—occur in food only in small fractions, wheat starch could contribute a higher proportion to the final food product, Newell notes. And she worries about the cumulative effect from traces of gluten in wheat starch when added to unavoidable gluten from cross-contamination.

Tricia Thompson, R.D., founder of Gluten Free Watchdog, a food-testing company in Boston, shares Newell’s concern. If a manufacturer chooses to use wheat starch, it should thoroughly test its products with a laboratory that takes multiple samples from each lot of wheat starch and the final products, she says.

“At least some testing should be done at an independent third-party testing facility,” Thompson says. “Studies published by both the FDA and Gluten Free Watchdog found that a majority of labeled gluten-free foods are testing under 5 ppm of gluten. It will be interesting to see how wheat-starch-based products test.”

The Celiac Disease Foundation supports the legislation allowing wheat starch, however. “The FDA went through a vigorous consulting process with the national groups in celiac disease, both medical and scientific, and this was the consensus: that wheat starch that has been processed to remove gluten to the FDA standard is safe for the celiac disease population,” says Marilyn Geller, chief executive officer of the foundation.

Authors of the Tampere University Hospital study point out wheat starch’s benefits. Compliance with a gluten-free diet is more important to recovery than avoiding trace amounts of gluten, they say. Because wheat starch improves the flavor and texture of certain foods, it can mean the difference in some people’s ability to accept such a difficult diet.


Early adopters

But will gluten-free consumers buy it? Toro, a Norwegian food company, tried introducing baking mixes containing wheat starch to U.S. markets before the FDA regulations were approved. In the absence of labeling standards, the product packages went into detail to explain how wheat starch could be safe. These details only confused people, according to Cureton. They wouldn’t buy the products, and Toro’s U.S. experiment failed.

“I’ll be anxious to taste more of the products as they come out using wheat starch,” says Cureton. “I think the first outing of products is going to have a tough road. If people taste the products and they don’t get sick, I think manufacturers down the road will have an easier time. But the first few brave companies will probably have to answer a lot of questions.”

Dr. Schär will be in that group. Founded in 1922, the company introduced its first line of gluten-free products in Europe in 1981 and entered the U.S. market in 2008. The company also sells its products in Canada and some countries in Latin America and the Middle East. Focusing on new food technology and innovative products, Dr. Schär has been trying to position itself as the leading producer for specialty diets in both Europe and North America. The company makes bread for U.S. markets in a plant in Swedesboro, New Jersey, and imports all other products from Europe.

Lee emphasizes that none of the Dr. Schär products familiar to U.S. consumers will change. The company has never used wheat starch in its breads and pastas, even in Europe. The company uses processed wheat starch only when necessary to achieve a high-quality product, she says. But the new croissants will showcase the sensory benefits of wheat starch.

“Even though you’re removing the protein, wheat starch provides a certain durability to the dough, an elasticity. So you can get a croissant that’s light and flaky,” Lee says. “Everyone gets used to gluten-free pasta. We get used to breads, although they’re getting better and better all the time. But to develop a puff pastry or a croissant: That’s hard to do with most gluten-free flours and starches.”


Extracting gluten

Not all wheat starch is made the same way, and products labeled gluten free can include only the type specifically processed to remove gluten. Lee does not say where Dr. Schär’s wheat starch comes from, but several European companies manufacture the ingredient for gluten-free foods.

The main components of wheat are fiber, starch and gluten protein. Extraction involves milling the wheat into flour, making dough and washing out the starch. Starch dissolves in water but gluten does not, so the gluten-protein sediment sinks to the bottom. Then the starch solution can be drained off and dried. Traditionally, the purified gluten fraction had more value, but the gluten-free industry has placed a demand on refined starch.

Peter Koehler, Ph.D., a food chemistry specialist at Leibniz Institute in Freising, Germany, says one German company purifies starch “by excessive washing with water until the gluten concentration is below the safety threshold.”

In Europe the standard for Codex wheat starch is 200 ppm gluten or less, meaning it must be further diluted during manufacturing to give a final product that tests safely below 20 ppm. According to the FDA, this will also be acceptable for products in the United States “as long as the final food product contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.”

Koehler has been researching how to use peptidase, an enzyme that breaks down gluten, to produce gluten-free wheat starch. It would provide better “water-use efficiency and quality of gluten reduction,” he says. However this technology remains in the experimental stage.

Lee says Dr. Schär follows a safety protocol in all its plants in Europe and the United States, and that approach will also apply to products that contain wheat starch.

When ingredients arrive, they’re not immediately brought into production. “They’re held in red-bag isolation … until they test free of gluten,” she says. “Then they are allowed into the production facility.”

Dr. Schär tests products along the production line and at the end as well. “We hold products for sampling purpose for six months to make sure that if there are any consumer questions we can go back to that exact batch and lot and recheck,” Lee says.


Another white flour

Apart from safety, critics argue that wheat starch does not improve nutrition. Gluten Free Watchdog’s Thompson says, “Wheat starch is not a nutritious food. It contains little to no fiber, vitamins and minerals. There are so many more healthful alternatives to wheat starch that I see absolutely no need to start using it in gluten-free products.”

Canadian Celiac Association’s Newell agrees. “Do we really need yet another nutrient-light but calorie-dense white flour?” she says. “I know there would be a consumer rejection from a segment of the gluten-free market, but some would choose to eat the product and depend on their own reactions to decide whether to continue.”

Some manufacturers agree with their concerns. Consumers will ultimately make their own choices. Those skeptical about the benefits of wheat starch will still have lots of alternatives.


A matter of choice

“Both our Udi’s and Glutino products never use wheat starch simply because it is derived from wheat, and, regardless of the removal of protein, it would still be an allergen,” says Caroline Hughes, corporate communications director for Boulder Brands. This policy means that Udi’s and Glutino products are not only gluten free but also safe for people with a wheat allergy.

Meanwhile, new products from GoPicnic, Dr. Schär and other companies will increase the range of choices for people on a gluten-free diet. Lee says that innovations in the food industry can improve both nutrition and enjoyment.

“From a dietitian’s perspective I love that we’re looking at really good, healthy grains,” she says. “We’re looking at reducing the fat, reducing the salt, reducing the sugar in the products, not just making the product gluten free but also very healthy.”

“I’ve actually had wheat-starch-based products when I’ve been in Europe,” says Lee, who has celiac disease. “The texture is far superior and I didn’t react. I love that we’re becoming smarter, and that’s allowing us to enjoy food much more. My research on quality of life shows the diet can have a huge negative impact, but if we open those doors with products that are better quality and better health-wise, that’s going to make the life of an individual with celiac disease significantly better.”


Van Waffle, who has a bachelor’s degree of science in biology, is research editor for Gluten-Free Living.  A resident of Ontario, Canada, he also contributes regularly to Edible Toronto and blogs about nature, gardening and local food at vanwaffle.com.