GI Symbol News with Dr Alan Barclay

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Dr Alan Barclay

Why refined starch is the hidden ingredient – and why it matters for your health.
With all the heated debate about sugars and in particular fructose, it’s easy to forget that sugars only make up around half of the carbohydrate in foods that we eat. Everyone seems to have forgotten about the other form of carbohydrate that we all eat: starches (formerly known as complex carbohydrates). Here I am talking about refined starches like cornflour, not starch as it is found in traditional, nutrient-rich starchy foods like root vegetables, legumes, cracked wheat, brown rice, pearl barley, quinoa and hearty porridge oats.

It’s easy to understand why refined starches are invisible:

  • They are not listed in the Nutrition Information/Nutrition Facts panel on foods, and
  • The names for added refined starches are often unpronounceable like acetylated distarch phosphate, or food additive code number 1414 if you prefer.

Carbohydrate information in nutrition information panel

Why does it matter? Well, you may be surprised to learn that refined starches contain essentially the same amount of calories (kJ), total carbohydrate and fibre as refined sugars, and without fortification, are just as devoid of vitamins and minerals. They also have a high GI. In a nutshell, refined starches are as detrimental to our health as refined sugar. So how come we never hear about them? Here’s one possible reason. When I did a PubMed search to find all the scientific studies investigating the health effects of refined starches on human health, I found a grand total of 20 papers. Starches are truly the dark continent of nutrition … If you want to know how much starch is in a food, it’s easy to work out. Here’s how:

  • If you live in Australia, NZ or the UK simply subtract the amount of sugars from the total carbohydrates list on the nutrition info panel.
  • If you live in the US, subtract both the amount of sugars and dietary fiber from the amount of carbohydrates.

And you can find all of the food additive codes for refined starch in the table below.
Food additive code numbers for starch
But if you think this is all sounding too hard we would have to say that we agree. In fact, it has that taint of nutritionism that we at GI News dislike so much. We would argue that rather than obsessively avoiding either refined starches or sugars it is much easier to look at the total amount of available carbohydrate in foods (in North America available carbohydrate equals total carbohydrates minus dietary fiber) and the foods GI. Swap high GI carbs with healthy low GI alternatives – it’s as simple as that!

And of course, we recommend that as much as possible, you eat and enjoy real foods made with wholesome ingredients and pass on the packaged foods with ingredient lists as long as your arm. We like Michael Pollan’s Food Rules 6 & 7: ‘avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients’ and ‘avoid food products containing ingredients that as third-grader cannot pronounce.’ Buon appetito!

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For more information about the GI Symbol Program
Dr Alan W Barclay, PhD
Chief Scientific Officer
Glycemic Index Foundation (Ltd)
Phone: +61 (0)2 9785 1037
Mob: +61 (0)416 111 046
Fax: +61 (0)2 9785 1037