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Discussion Threads: Questions from the Field


A consumer called who is sensitive to gluten and asked if they can consume or bake with a brand of buttermilk that contains modified food starch. Can they?


Gluten is a protein that naturally occurs in a number of grains such as wheat, barley, rye, oats and triticale. People who cannot consume gluten from these grains have a condition known as celiac’s disease. Celiac’s disease occurs when the body’s immune system over-reacts and attacks the gluten protein as well as the small hair like villi that protrude from the lining of the small intestine that help us absorb nutrients from our food source. This disease affects 1% of the general population. Normal symptoms are bloating and diarrhea and occur in 50% of the people who have this digestive autoimmune disorder. The general public gets the term “gluten” confused. The gluten allergen that they speak of is from wheat, triticale, rye, or barley or oats gluten and not from other grains or plant sources. So the quick and short answer is yes, they can consume that buttermilk if it is made from tapioca or corn starch as part of the buttermilk stabilization system. The only starch the person with celiac’s disease has to concern themselves with is from wheat starch or wheat flour neither of which are commonly used in buttermilk stabilizers.

Corn starch does not contain any gluten per se and many times it gets confused with gluten from the other grains mentioned above. Only wheat, barley, rye and triticale contain the gluten proteins gliadin and glutenin. Proteins from any other source do not exacerbate the celiac’s disease. Most buttermilk stabilizers either contain tapioca starch or corn starch. That starch may be natural and labeled as “food starch”, “tapioca starch”, or “corn starch”. It may also contain “modified food starch” from the same sources.

Modified food starches are preferred since the modification process makes the starch more resistant to shear (and we have a lot of that in a dairy plant!) and low pH (buttermilk is a low pH food with a typical pH around 4.3 – 4.5). Modification of the starch can also add some freeze thaw stability, but that property is not always desired or applicable in this case. So when a consumer sees the label “food starch”, “modified food starch”, or tapioca “flour” on your buttermilk carton label, they might assume the “flour” or tapioca starch is from a typical “wheat flour” source that could be a problem for them if they have celiac’s disease.

Corn does contain corn proteins but neither are referred to as “gluten”. The proteins that cause celiac’s disease are from the interaction of gliadin and glutenin proteins, neither of which is found in corn or tapioca root. Corn glutin is an old term for protein from corn used in animal feed. Thus, you can see how the two terms may have been confused with one another.

So in short, many consumers get confused and it is up to us to educate them about our products and their allergen sensitivities. We are not doctors, but can offer the consumer good advice that they can use to make their own educated food choices. Here is a link that can help you deal with inquiries like this from your customers.