Types of starchy foods
Below, you'll find more detailed information about the nutritional benefits of some of the most common starchy foods, along with information on storage and preparation from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the British Dietetic Association (BDA).
Potatoes are a great choice of starchy food and a good source of energy, fibre, B vitamins and potassium.
In the UK, we also get a lot of our vitamin C from potatoes – although they only contain 11-16mg of vitamin C per 100g of potatoes, we generally eat a lot of them. They're good value for money and can be a healthy choice.
Although potatoes are vegetables, in the UK we mostly eat them as the starchy food part of a meal, and they're a good source of carbohydrate in our diets.
Because of this, potatoes don't count towards your five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but they can play an important role in your diet.
Potatoes are a healthy choice when boiled, baked, mashed or roasted with only a small amount of fat or oil and no added salt. French fries and other chips cooked in oil or served with salt are not a healthy choice.
When cooking or serving potatoes, try to go for lower-fat (polyunsaturated) spreads or small amounts of unsaturated oils, such as olive or sunflower oil, instead of butter. In mashed potato, use lower-fat milk – such as semi-skimmed, 1% fat or skimmed milk – instead of whole milk or cream.
Leave potato skins on where possible to keep in more of the fibre and vitamins. For example, eat the skin when you're having boiled potatoes or a baked potato.
If you're boiling potatoes, some nutrients will leak out into the water, especially if you've peeled them. To stop this happening, only use enough water to cover them and cook them only for as long as they need.
Storing potatoes in a cool, dark and dry place will help stop them sprouting. Don't eat any green, damaged or sprouting bits of potatoes.
Bread – especially wholemeal, granary, brown and seeded varieties – is a healthy choice to eat as part of a balanced diet.
Wholegrain, wholemeal and brown breads give us energy and contain B vitamins, vitamin E, fibre and a wide range of minerals.
White bread also contains a range of vitamins and minerals, but it has less fibre than wholegrain, wholemeal or brown breads. If you prefer white bread, look for higher-fibre options.
Some people avoid bread because they think they're allergic to wheat, or they think bread is fattening. However, cutting out any type of food altogether might mean you miss out on a whole range of nutrients people need to stay healthy. If you're concerned that you have a wheat allergy or intolerance, speak to your GP.
Bread can be stored at room temperature. Follow the "best before" date to make sure you eat it fresh.
Cereal products are made from grains. The benefits of eating wholegrain cereals are that they can contribute to our daily intake of iron, fibre, B vitamins and protein. Higher-fibre options can also provide a slow release of energy.
Wheat, oats, barley, rye and rice are commonly available cereals that can be eaten as wholegrains. This means cereal products consisting of oats and oatmeal, like porridge, and wholewheat products are healthy breakfast options.
Barley, couscous, corn, quinoa and tapioca also count as healthy cereal products.
Many cereal products in the UK are refined, with low wholegrain content. They can also be high in added salt and sugar. When you're shopping for cereals, check the food labels to compare different products.
For more advice, read about healthy breakfast cereals.
Rice and grains
Rice and grains are an excellent choice of starchy food. They give us energy, are low in fat, and good value for money.
There are many types to choose from, including:
- all kinds of rice – such as quick-cook, arborio, basmati, long grain, brown, short grain and wild
- bulgur wheat
As well as carbohydrates, rice and grains contain:
- protein – which the body needs to grow and repair itself
- fibre – which can help the body get rid of waste products
- B vitamins – which help release energy from the food we eat and help the body work properly
Rice and grains, such as couscous and bulgur wheat, can be eaten hot or cold and in salads.
There are a few precautions you should take when storing and reheating cooked rice and grains. This is because the spores of some food poisoning bugs can survive cooking.
If cooked rice or grains are left standing at room temperature, the spores can germinate. The bacteria multiply and produce toxins that can cause vomiting and diarrhoea. Reheating food won't get rid of the toxins.
It's therefore best to serve rice and grains when they've just been cooked. If this isn't possible, cool them within an hour after cooking and keep them refrigerated until reheating or using in a cold dish.
It's important to throw away any rice and grains that have been left at room temperature overnight.
If you aren't going to eat rice immediately, refrigerate it within one hour and eat within 24 hours. Rice should be reheated thoroughly, reaching a core temperature of 70C for two minutes (or equivalent) so it's steaming hot throughout.
Rice should not be reheated more than once – it should be discarded. Don't reheat rice unless it has been chilled down safely and kept in the fridge until you reheat it. Further information on how to reheat and store rice can be found on the FSA website.
Follow the "use by" date and storage instructions on the label for any cold rice or grain salads that you buy.
Pasta in your diet
Pasta is another healthy option to base your meal on. It consists of dough made from durum wheat and water, and contains iron and B vitamins.
Wholewheat or wholegrain are healthier alternatives to ordinary pasta, as they contain more fibre. We digest wholegrain foods more slowly, so they can make us feel full for longer.
Dried pasta can be stored in a cupboard and typically has a long shelf life, while fresh pasta will need to be refrigerated and has a shorter lifespan. Check the food packaging for "best before" or "use by" dates and further storage instructions.
Acrylamide in starchy food
Acrylamide is a chemical that is created when many foods, particularly starchy foods like potatoes and bread, are cooked for long periods at high temperatures, such as when baking, frying, grilling, toasting and roasting.
There is evidence to show that acrylamide has the potential to cause cancer. The FSA has the following tips to reduce your risk of acrylamide at home:
- Go for gold: aim for a golden yellow colour or lighter when frying, baking, toasting or roasting starchy foods like potatoes, root vegetables and bread.
- Check the pack: follow the cooking instructions carefully when frying or oven-heating packaged food products such as chips, roast potatoes and parsnips. The on-pack instructions are designed to cook the product correctly. This ensures that you aren’t cooking starchy foods for too long or at temperatures which are too high.
- Eat a varied and balanced diet: while we can’t completely avoid risks like acrylamide in food, this will help reduce your risk of cancer. This includes basing meals on starchy carbohydrates and getting your 5 A DAY. Avoid frying or roasting potatoes and root vegetables. Instead, boil or steam them as this will both reduce your risk of acrylamide and cut down on fat.
- Don’t keep raw potatoes in the fridge: storing raw potatoes in the fridge can increase overall acrylamide levels. Raw potatoes should ideally be stored in a dark, cool place at temperatures over 6C.
For more information, see the Food Standards Agency website.
Read more about preparing and cooking food safely.