Resistant starch wasn’t discovered until 1982. Before that, we thought all starch could be digested by the digestive enzymes in our small intestine. Subsequent studies confirmedthat there are indeed starches that resist digestion and end up in our large intestine, where they can feed our good bacteria, just like fiber does.
Resistant starch is found naturally in many common foods, including grains, vegetables, beans, seeds and some nuts, but in small quantities, just a few percent of the total. There are a few ways, though, to get some of the rest of the starch to join the resistance.
When regular starches are cooked and then cooled, some of the starch recrystallizes into resistant starch. For this reason, pasta salad can be healthier than hot pasta and potato salad can be healthier than a baked potato, but the effect isn’t huge. The resistant starch goes from about 3 percent up to 4 percent. The best source of resistant starch is not from eating cold starches, but from eating beans, which start at 4 or 5 percent and go up from there.
If you mix cooked black beans with a “fresh fecal” sample, there’s so much fiber and resistant starch in the beans that the pH drops as good bacteria churn out beneficial short-chain fatty acids, which are associated both directly and indirectly with lower colon cancer risk. The more of this poopy black bean mixture you smear on human colon cancer, the fewer cancer cells survive.
Better yet, we can eat berries with our meals that act as starch blockers. Raspberries, for example, completely inhibit the enzyme that we use to digest starch, leaving more for our friendly flora. So, putting raspberry jam on your toast, strawberries on your corn flakes, or making blueberry pancakes may allow your good bacteria to share in some of the breakfast bounty.
Another way to feed our good bacteria is to eat intact grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. In one study, researchers split people into two groups and had them eat the same food, but in one group, the seeds, grains, beans, and chickpeas were eaten more or less in a whole form, while they were ground up for the other group. For example, for breakfast, the whole-grain group got muesli, and the ground-grain group had the same muesli, but it was blended into a porridge. Similarly, beans were added to salads for the whole-grain group, whereas they were blended into hummus for the ground-grain group. Note that both groups were eating whole grains—not refined—that is, they were eating whole foods. In the ground-grain group, though, those whole grains, beans, and seeds were made into flour or blended up.
What happened? Those on the intact whole-grain diet “resulted in a doubling of the amount excreted compared to the usual diet and produced an additional and statistically significant increase in stool mass” compared with those on the ground whole-grain diet, even though they were eating the same food and the same amount of food. Why? On the whole-grain diet, there was so much more for our good bacteria to eat that they grew so well and appeared to bulk up the stool. Even though people chewed their food, “[l]arge amounts of apparently whole seeds were recovered from stools,” but on closer inspection, they weren’t whole at all. Our bacteria were having a smorgasbord. The little bits and pieces left after chewing transport all this wonderful starch straight down to our good bacteria. As a result, stool pH dropped as our bacteria were able to churn out so many of those short-chain fatty acids. Whole grains are great, but intact whole grains may be even better, allowing us to feed our good gut bacteria with the leftovers.
Once in our colon, resistant starches have been found to have the same benefits as fiber: softening and bulking stools, reducing colon cancer risk by decreasing pH, increasing short-chain fatty acid production, reducing products of protein fermentation (also known as products of putrefaction), and decreasing secondary bile products.
Well, if resistant starch is so great, why not just take resistant starch pills? It should come as no surprise that commercial preparations of resistant starch are now available and “food scientists have developed a number of RS-enriched products.” After all, some find it “difficult to recommend a high-fiber diet to the general public.” Wouldn’t be easier to just enrich some junk food? And, indeed, you now can buy pop tarts bragging they contain “resistant corn starch.”
Just taking resistant starch supplements does not work, however. There have been two trials so far trying to prevent cancer in people with genetic disorders that put them at extremely high risk, with virtually a 100-percent chance of getting cancer, and resistant starch supplements didn’t help. A similar result was found in another study. So, we’re either barking up the wrong tree, the development of hereditary colon cancer is somehow different than regular colon cancer, or you simply can’t emulate the effects of naturally occurring dietary fiber in plant-rich diets just by giving people some resistant starch supplements.
For resistant starch to work, it has to get all the way to the end of the colon, which is where most tumors form. But, if the bacteria higher up eat it all, then resistant starch may not be protective. So, we also may have to eat fiber to push it along. Thus, we either eat huge amounts of resistant starch—up near the level consumed in Africa, which is twice as much as were tried in the two cancer trials—or we consume foods rich in both resistant starch and fiber. In other words, “[f]rom a public health perspective, eating more of a variety of food rich in dietary fibre including wholegrains, vegetables, fruits, and pulses [such as chickpeas and lentils] is a preferable strategy for reducing cancer risk.”