You know those giant pleated collars that European nobles wore in the 15th and 16th centuries? They’re called “ruffs,” which is kind of fitting since they look a bit like the cones worn by dogs who can’t stop chewing on itchy spots. Some ruffs were so wide that their wearers had to use special extra-long utensils to get food into their mouths.
The reason ruffs were popular (in addition to the fact that they made wearers assume a neck and head posture that proclaimed their nobility) was that they were really time-consuming and expensive to maintain — and the key ingredient in keeping them from folding or drooping was starch.
These days, starch is still used to stiffen collars, though at much less extreme levels. It’s also an important ingredient in industrial production, included in products like adhesives and paper. The single biggest role for starch in the modern world, though? It’s what we eat.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “starches,” or “starchy foods”? For most people, it’s probably processed food — especially bread products like dinner rolls, crackers, and cookies. But there are also many whole, unprocessed foods that are high in starch: rice, corn, quinoa, and potatoes, for example. In fact, most traditional human diets have been centered around starches.
While it’s true that cookies and quinoa both contain starch, they don’t affect the body in the same way. If your idea of starches is only based on processed grains or fried potatoes, you may be surprised to learn that some starches are among the healthiest foods you can eat. In fact, some types of starch offer gut health benefits that can’t be achieved with any other food, making them important foods for a healthy life.
So, what are starches, exactly? Which types of starches are healthy and unhealthy, and how can you add more of the good ones to your diet?