Sticky Superstar Starch

Judging by the very scientific term for carbohydrate rich foods like potatoes, carrots, yams, cassava, rice, etc. I wonder how many people actually use the term ‘Starch’. Not too many- is my answer and that’s probably because the concept of starch is less familiar than regular carbs. Starch is the major energy reserve for plants; it is located mainly in the seeds, roots or tubers, stem pith, and fruit. In home cooking and in commercial food processing native starches are used for their thickening properties. In other words, when your pancake batter is too watery and you add more flour to it to thicken it up a little, that’s where our key player ‘starch’ comes into action.

Where do we get them from? The total carbohydrate content of a food includes starches, or complex carbohydrates, which provide energy for your body. They constitute an important source of calories in grains, such as bread, rice and oatmeal; legumes; and some vegetables, such as potatoes, yams, green peas and corn. Each gram of starch provides 4 calories, just like sugar.  The predominant commercial starches are those from field corn (maize), potato, cassava (tapioca), wheat, rice, and arrowroot. The nutritional value of uncooked starchy foods (cereal grains, potato, peas, and beans) is relatively poor. In other words, eating them raw is not as beneficial as one might think, even though for most fruits and vegetables, that’s the way to go! Therefore, we need some form of cooking- baking, frying, boiling etc. to make the starch more available biologically than its raw form.

Calculating starch from a label-

·       Locate the amount of total carbohydrates on the nutrition facts label on the food packaging

·       Subtract the fiber from the total carbohydrate count. This gives you the net carbohydrates per serving.

·       Subtract the sugars from net carbohydrates. This will give you total starch content per serving.

Recommendations - The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend getting 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates, which include both starches and sugars. Because a gram of sugar or starch provides 4 calories, this broad range corresponds to 180 to 358 grams of total carbohydrates a day, based on a 1,600- to 2,200-calorie diet. Just to give you a point of reference, each 1/3-cup serving of rice, sweet potato or pasta each provides approximately 15 grams of starches.

Weight loss goal- Reduce your intake of starchy carbohydrates, including bread, rice and potatoes, to a minimum until you start losing weight at a healthy pace of 1 to 2 pounds a week. Add more fiber to your diet to increase your sense of fullness.

Physical activity- If you are physically active, getting in enough starchy carbohydrates, especially in the post-workout period, can help you replenish your glycogen stores to better fuel your next workout. It, however, varies with the individual’s age, gender and weight and intake of starch should be adjusted accordingly.

Because starch and sugar both give us 4 cal per serving, it is important to choose wisely from a wide variety of foods to not exceed the daily limit. Inclusion of lots of fresh fruits and vegetables are a good way balancing the total carbohydrate intake with minimal portions coming from sugar and/or starch.

This blog is written by Sharmin Hossain, a student intern of Valley Nutrition Counseling  with a PhD major in Nutrition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst