Cornstarch is a common ingredient used for cooking and baking. You’ll often find it in packaged and ready foods. Here’s a look into cornstarch uses, the nutritional value of cornstarch, healthy alternatives, and more.
What Is Cornstarch?
Cornstarch, also called maize starch or corn flour in the U.S., is the starch found in corn grains. It is a fine, white powder made from the endosperm or the starchy part of corn kernels. It's created when the hard outer shells of corn kernels are separated from the starchy endosperm and the endosperm is milled or ground to form cornstarch.
What Does Cornstarch Do?
Cornstarch is a versatile ingredient used in many different industries, but it's most commonly used in cooking and baking. In baking, cornstarch is a thickening agent used to improve the consistency of foods.
If you add cornstarch to water or any liquid, its molecules absorb the liquid and swell up. It then combines with the surrounding liquid and turns into a paste. This paste is added to food to thicken sauces, gravies, soups, fillings, puddings, marinades, and more. You can also use cornstarch to make a batter or coating to cook meat and vegetables.
Cornstarch is a great binding agent, which is why it is used in the adhesive, paper, and textile manufacturing industries. Uncooked cornstarch is also used as a form of glucose to treat glycogen storage disease, which occurs when your body has trouble storing sugar.
Other cornstarch uses include the production of:
Is Cornstarch Healthy?
Many people consider corn products such as cornstarch to be gluten-free. However, corn contains a protein called zein, which is being studied as a potential substitute for gluten. Zein is similar to gluten and would replace gluten-free ingredients in foods like bread or noodles.
But research shows that people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity react to zein in corn and corn products like cornstarch. Celiac disease is a condition that occurs when your immune system reacts negatively to gluten and your stomach can’t digest it. Zein causes a similar immune response and activates certain proteins or antibodies, which can cause irritable bowel syndrome, a digestive disorder that causes stomach pain, gas, diarrhea, and constipation.
If you’re allergic to corn, having food with cornstarch can lead to an allergic reaction. Research shows that zein stimulates your immune system and causes an allergic reaction when you eat cornstarch. Corn allergy is rare. Still, it can cause serious symptoms such as skin rashes, dizziness, breathing problems, and digestive problems.
Sometimes, cornstarch can also get contaminated with other grains like wheat. That's because manufacturers of cornstarch may process other gluten-rich foods. Eating contaminated cornstarch can produce protective antibodies and lead to allergic reactions.
What Are Some Cornstarch Alternatives?
Cornstarch is an ingredient you can find in many of your favorite dishes. But if you’re allergic to cornstarch, healthy alternatives are available.
Here are some cornstarch alternatives to cook and bake with:
Arrowroot flour or starch.Arrowroot is a gluten-free flour or starch made from the tuber or rootstock of tropical plants like Maranta arundinacea. The tuber is processed to make a powder or flour. It is flavorless and can be used to thicken all types of food.
Add twice the amount of arrowroot to your food if you’re substituting it for cornstarch. For example, if a recipe calls for one tablespoon of cornstarch, you'll use two tablespoons of arrowroot powder.
Arrowroot is often used for pie fillings and desserts as it goes well with acidic fruits. It's also ideal because you don’t have to cook it to thicken the food or remove the raw, starchy taste. When cooking sauces or gravies with arrowroot, remember that you should eat them immediately after serving as they don’t last long or reheat well.
Flaxseed gel.Flaxseed gel is a healthy and gluten-free alternative to cornstarch. You can make it by mixing ground flaxseeds or flaxseed powder with water. This forms a gelatinous substance, which can thicken food in place of cornstarch, although it isn’t as smooth as cornstarch and may lend a rough texture to the food.
To replace two tablespoons of cornstarch, you’ll need one tablespoon of ground flaxseeds with four tablespoons of water. Allow the mixture to sit for 5 minutes until it thickens and becomes jelly-like. You can then add it to improve the consistency of soups, sauces, and other foods.
Tapioca starch or cassava flour.Cassava flour is extracted from the entire cassava root. Tapioca is just the starch extracted from the cassava root. Cassava flour is more nutritious and has more fiber than tapioca starch.
This gluten-free option is mostly used for thickening foods. Similar to arrowroot, you'll use twice the amount of tapioca starch (or cassava flour) as cornstarch in a recipe. You can use tapioca starch to make fillings for dishes that require freezing, and it can be stored without breaking down like arrowroot or other flour-based sauces. However, if you boil tapioca starch, it can get stringy.
Water chestnut starch. Water chestnut starch is a popular thickening agent used in Asian cuisine. It is made from water chestnut, a root vegetable or corm that stores starch. While cooking, you can use as much water chestnut starch as you would cornstarch.
Potato starch. Potato starch is another popular thickening agent obtained from potatoes as it requires less cooking and makes more delicate sauces than other flours or thickeners. However, it is unsuitable for high-heat cooking as it loses its thickening ability at high temperatures. You'll want to eat heated sauces made with potato starch quickly because they don’t stay long. You can use 1 1/2 teaspoons of potato starch to replace the same amount of cornstarch.
Additionally, you can use other types of flour like rice flour or starches like wheat starch if you’re allergic to corn but not sensitive to gluten. You can also use xanthan gum as a cornstarch alternative.
The Bottom Line
If you have a corn allergy or gluten insensitivity, avoid eating cornstarch. Instead, use the above-mentioned alternatives like arrowroot, tapioca, or potato starch for your health and safety. When cooking at home, you can make a gluten-and-cornstarch-free version of the recipe with the substitutes.
Also, be sure to watch out for cornstarch in packaged or canned foods. Before purchasing an item, check the label to see if it contains cornstarch or other corn-based ingredients. And if you’re ordering food at a restaurant, don't be afraid to ask whether the chef has added any corn products.