Bears survive one more week, but starch goes on forever

The factory that gave birth to the Chicago Bears is still making starch in Decatur and teaching the world to use it.

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Gummy bears are not only formed in starch molds that are washed away, but have starch in them, to help them hold their bearlike shape, and are coated with starch to keep the bears from sticking together.

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The Bears lost to the Packers on Sunday but made it into the playoffs anyway, so their suffering continues.

The season started so well, if I recall, base on snippets overheard Monday mornings on WBBM radio news. Not that I watched a single second of a single game. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the team.

I’ve been reading about how, 100 years ago this October, the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company of Decatur, producers of starch, sent their factory team, the Staleys, north, along with its young coach, George Halas, to become the Chicago Bears.

Opinion bug


Learning this led to the rare football-related question that intrigues me: Does Staley still make starch?

Yes, they do, but not under that name. The company was purchased for $1.4 billion in 1988 by British food ingredients producer Tate & Lyle. I contacted them at the end of August. We hear so much about the football part of the tale, but drop the ball — look, a sports metaphor! — when it comes to the starch aspect.

Tate & Lyle not only has a 400-acre factory making starch in Decatur called Tate & Lyle Ingredients Americas LLC but a mixing plant in Sycamore that employs 100 workers; various silos; a purchasing facility, Tate & Lyle Grain; and a research lab, the Commercial and Food Innovation Centre, in Hoffman Estates, which is the place they decided our two-hour Zoom dog-and-pony show should showcase.

Though tempted to complain, “But I want to see the factory!” given the general corporate genius for non-responsiveness, I decided to take what I could get.

But first: What is starch? You might picture a yellow box filled with a white powder used once or twice a year to thicken gravy. But what is it? Anybody?

Starch is a dusty organic chemical made by all green plants — we mainly use corn, since we have so much, and corn kernels are 70% starch. But you could make banana starch. The Germans prefer potato starch. All starch is made in the green leaves of plants from extra sugar formed by photosynthesis, as a way to store energy. Think of starch as solid sunlight. Or plant fat.

When it comes to your food, starch provides thickness, body. Without starch, gravy is just meat-flavored water. Starches span the globe.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Chicago Bears

The Bears mascot is named “Staley” as a sly wink to A.E. Staley, a Decatur starch manufacturer. The Bears began their existence 100 years ago as the Staleys, the company team, headed by George Halas, who worked in the corn scale room.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

“They’re ubiquitous,” said Victoria Stencel, global category marketing director at Tate & Lyle. “They provide texture, mouthfeel, sensory appeal. Pretty much everything. They play an integral role when we reduce sugar and fat. And they do a lot of technical and functional things behind the scene that, as consumers, we never think about. Nor should we.

“What consumers do think about is the end result of texture. When you see things like smooth, crunchy, crispy, creamy, those are all things that consumers look for, and starches enable all that.”

Sugar and fat not only taste good but hold food together. Take them out, you must replace their function with some other binding agent.

“When we reduce the sugar out of that food, now we’ve got a big hole there,” said Jim Smoot, a senior manager whose Ph.D. is in synthetic organic carbohydrate chemistry. “We have to put something back to build back that body, that syrupy texture that people would expect in a full sugar food.”

Without starch, non-fat ice cream would be non-fat ice.

What manufacturers call the ingredients in a product matters — Tate & Lyle did a survey where 84% of customers said they read the labels, and what they read affects what they buy.

“People are looking for a cleaner, simpler, shorter label,” Smoot said.

A lot of what Tate & Lyle relates to nomenclature — what they call “Clean Label” —is developing ingredients whose name can be used on a product without raising consumer alarm.

For instance, an orange cheese puff ball that comes in a gallon bag can call itself “modified starch” because the purchaser of such a product obviously isn’t that concerned with what he’s eating.

But if the starch are going into, oh, something called Adobe Natural Pueblo Health Rounds, then the word “modified” radiates off the label, echoing with the terrifying “GMOs,” or Genetically Modified Organisms,” which certain consumers shun, if only to prove that liberals can be as science averse and fearful as anybody else.

“People prefer ‘starch’ to ‘modified starch,’” said Judy Whaley, senior vice president of Global R&D. “The holy grail is having a starch able to provide thickness, provide stability, but still be able to label it a starch.”

“We do find a trend, that’s really prevalent right now; people just want familiar products in their homes,” Jennifer Walker, director of global community relations. ”To turn the product around and be able to read and understand what’s on the label. That’s definitely an area of focus for our teams right now.”

Starch also keeps foods from separating into component parts. Since consumers, worried about shortages, are stockpiling food, that food needs a longer shelf life. Starch keeps products like salad dressing or yogurt drinks from separating.

“We use starch products in dairy products, particularly culture products: yogurt, yogurt drinks,” Whaley said. “What starch is bringing to those products is ability to control texture, taste. If you ever made yogurt at home, you know it waters out, the gel collapses, and you get some pretty unappealing behaviors.”

One way Tate & Lyle develops and keeps customers is by teaching them how to use starch. That’s where the Hoffman Estates research facility comes in. It not only works with customers to understand how the cookie crumbles, sometimes literally, it gives free online starch information at its Texture University, in presentations like “Reducing sugar and calorie count in mooncakes.”

Alas, the canyon floor is rushing up, so alas, we must say goodbye to starch — for now. I still hope to get to that plant in Decatur as soon as, you know, people go places. Until then, it’s back to our slow-motion clown coup on Wednesday.

But it’s comforting to me — and I hope to at least a few of you — to be reminded that the physical world is still out there, and the reason your Cheez-It Snap’d chips are indeed “cheesy, thin & crispy” as the bag claims, and not, oh, “pungent, lumpy & soggy” is the modified corn starch within, such as that produced in not-so-far-off Decatur.

As we observe our erstwhile solid democracy separate into its component parts, lose form and possibly collapse into a disgusting mess, we can only hope for whatever is the political equivalent of the binding power of corn starch. Were it only as easy as mixing in something to hold our nation together.

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