If creating candy is like juggling, then for many confectioners, starches are like a third hand.

For years, starches, modified or not, have supported candy makers in improving or maintaining their products while they try to offset production costs. Now, growing health and religious concerns, changing markets and increasing ingredient prices continue to make creating satisfying sweets a true balancing act.

Despite these ongoing issues, starch companies are still finding ways to help confectioners keep all their balls in the air.


Rising concerns

The issue has never been whether or not people enjoy candy, but rather if they can.

For those with food sensitivities such as gluten intolerance, finding suitable sweets and snacks can be a difficult task. Joe Eisley, principal food technologist for Ingredion, says the Weschester, Ill.-based ingredient supplier might have a starch solution — for one type of soft candy, at least.

“Licorice, for instance, uses wheat flour typically, and for manufacturers interested in gluten-free alternatives, we have a range of gluten-free starches and flours that may be able to replace wheat flour in licorice,” Eisley explains.

Ingredion offers a rice flour, among others, that could help confectioners relieve any gluten issues like those in licorice. And in a nation where roughly 10% of Americans have some type of sensitivity to gluten, per a 2011 study by BMC Medicine, that could be significant.

“These products give confectionery manufacturers the ability to to offer allergen-free products that do not exclude those consumers with allergen concerns,” Eisley says.

Not all issues are health-related, though. Many consumers look for vegetarian, kosher or halal options, or confections that don’t contain gelatin — the common, animal-based gelling agent.

To obtain a vegetarian, kosher or halal designation, confectioners can use any combination of plant-based starches in their products, including the corn, potato, tapioca and sago starches Ingredion offers.

“You also have added benefit of using a plant-derived starch so there wouldn’t be any animal products in (the confections),” says Rick Mignella, Ingredion senior manager of business development, confectionery North America.


Tempting textures

While typically utilized for gummy candy, starches can also be used to create new and interesting textures — an important way for confectioners to stay viable in the competitive soft candy market.

“A lot of customers are looking for a unique texture, meaning they will use a combination of starch and a different type of gelling agent like pectin, gelatin or carrageenan,” says Wen Shieh, technical leader for texturizing solutions for Cargill. “They will combine a starch with a different gelling agent and deliver a very unique texture for certain niche markets.”

New textures, whether soft with a clean bite or slightly stiff and sticky, allow confectioners to deliver not only original experiences but also healthful elements like those seen in gummy vitamins.

“Another trend is developing novel confectionery or fruit snack textures that are more appealing or interesting to children, essentially creating new delivery systems for flavor,” Eisley says.


Cutting costs,
preserving products

Starch use in confectionery began with the need to balance costs of gelatin and pectin, and in today’s strained economy, that is still the case.

For gelatin and pectin replacement, Eisley says some ingredient suppliers have zeroed in on potato starch, one that functions similarly in gummy candy to the costly gelling agents. 

“Potato starch actually gives the most clarity and the most elasticity of all the commonly used starches, especially compared to corn starch, so potato starch is a better gelatin replacer in confectionery,” he explains. “A lot of work now is focused on gelatin replacement using potato starch.”

In addition to gelatin and pectin replacement, Shieh says confectioners are turning to starches for another reason: cost.

“The starch industry is always looking for improvement, and the customer is always looking for a more cost effective ingredient that provides a clean flavor,” Shieh says. “Also, they are looking for an ingredient that will improve or reduce the drying time. If they want to expand their businesses, they do not want to put capital investment in if they can just ask the ingredient supplier to provide a more functional ingredient to fit into their existing process environment.”

To decrease drying time, Shieh says confectioners can use high-amylose corn- or tapioca-based starches, which Cargill offers in addition to moulding starches.

But no matter how they do it, eliminating expenses remains a key focus.

“Cost always is an issue because in this environment, everyone is looking for ways to reduce costs in their formulations,” Shieh says.

The starches, with or without cost savings, should preserve the products and flavors consumers have come to know and love. 

 “I think candy has a nostalgic element to it,” Eisley says. “Especially in uncertain times, people can turn to confections as an inexpensive way to comfort themselves with a permitted indulgence. They want traditional types of candies that they are familiar with from their childhood. I don’t think that traditional candy types will ever go away or lose popularity, but I think people will always look for new textures and new ways to enjoy a flavor or a texture or satisfy their sweet tooth.”