After a roller coaster ride of peaks and dips, gluten-free foods have finally embedded themselves securely into the American mainstream.
Gluten-free foods and beverages spent the better part of the past two decades moving up the trend track in fits and starts. Recently, however, the gluten-free category experienced a growth spurt of epic proportions.
According to global market research concern Mintel Group Ltd., from Fall 2011 to Fall 2013, the release of food and beverage products designated as gluten-free leaped ahead by 44%, topping out at more than $10 billion in sales in the U.S. This figure is twice that of 10 years ago. It also is nearly double what experts predicted even as recently as 2006.
Only about 1-2% of persons have been diagnosed as having celiac disease, the autoimmune condition that triggers a severe response to the proteins and protein fractions (peptides) of wheat, especially the glycoprotein gluten. Estimates range widely, but it’s believed up to one in 20 persons have sensitivity to, and should avoid gluten and related proteins, to avoid symptoms that are less severe but nonetheless unpleasant. Of these groups, about half are sensitive to another wheat protein, gliadin.
Aside from people who have been diagnosed as gluten-sensitive, there is a growing trend among people who are not sensitive to gluten, but who consciously choose a gluten-free diet in pursuit of a perceived healthier lifestyle. The outcome of this choice is often anecdotally reported as a feeling of relief in digestion, along with other physiological benefits.
This could be, in part, because of the ancillary benefits of eating a gluten-free diet. Some who have switched for non-medical reasons note that they “feel better” and “have more energy.” There’s evidence, however, that this might derive more from cutting out the caloric load of some of the high-carb foods associated with gluten-bearing ingredients. In other words, an associated weight loss due to a lower-calorie diet that happens to be free of gluten would provide positive feedback for maintaining such a regimen.
Such growth in a market based on restricting a major ingredient group -- wheat and related grains, such as oats, barley, rye, spelt and kamut -- can be confounding.
Some surveys reveal that 10 times the number of Americans who need to avoid gluten-containing products are doing so. A survey by The NPD Group revealed that nearly a third of consumers asked said they actively seek out gluten-free foods. For whatever reason, gluten-free has become an unstoppable category in the food processing world, most particularly in baking. (New research also indicates that, for some, gluten is not a problem at all, rather, only gliadin or other wheat proteins.)
This challenge is not without major obstacles. Modern nutrition is based on numerous varieties of foods and food products that are as deeply enrooted in the mass consumption habits as can be. For instance, standard milling processes remove the seed coat of the wheat, or the bran, as well as the germ. However, this alteration is not without consequences: As opposed to the traditional crushing of the whole grain, the new process causes the loss of vitamins and minerals, followed by an increased risk in deficiency illnesses of all kinds.
Deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1), found in unpolished rice and other grains, results in the disease beriberi; lack of niacin causes pellagra. A disproportionally high concentration of gluten, together with a reduction of the nutritional dietary fiber required by the body for a good digestion of flour, has been promoted as a possible reason behind the rise in incidence of celiac disease and increased sensitivity to gluten.
Gluten by the Numbers
Last summer, results of a study by Fadi Aramouni, Ph.D., at Kansas State University, showed that eggs help improve the quality of gluten-free bread. Presenting at the IFT annual meeting in Chicago, Aramouni explained how the common characteristics of wheat bread -- specifically taste, volume, color and moisture -- often are lacking in gluten-free bread products. Other common problems with gluten-free breads are poor shelflife/quick staling. Since gluten is needed to form the structure, volume and texture of conventional baked products, a similar protein can provide the best solution.
Aramouni further noted, “Using eggs as part of a gluten-free bread roll formulation, we [the research team] were able to increase volume and improve color and texture.” As explained by Aramouni, “The addition of eggs made the texture softer and helped maintain moisture and retard staling -- which is important to maintaining shelflife.”
Another aspect of using eggs to replace the gluten, as found by Aramouni’s team, addresses the key shortcoming of early gluten-free products: consumer acceptability. For a gluten-free bread to be successful, it must not only taste and perform the same as its gluten-containing counterpart; in some respects, it must exceed it. When tested among both celiac and non-celiac consumers, Aramouni’s Kansas State team’s product was rated as “highly acceptable” by both groups.
Wheat (along with its immediate relatives, rye, spelt and kamut) is the primary source of gluten in the diet, although some species of oats and barley can cause the gastric distress and inflammation typical of gluten sensitivity or intolerance. Symptoms run from mild to severe in individuals who do react, and for that reason, also, oats or barley might be a trigger.
In fact, while gluten-sensitive individuals might be able to handle gluten content at up to 20ppm, those with celiac disease or other disease states that lead to severe reactions from gluten-containing foods might not be able to tolerate levels of even 2-5ppm.
What makes this difficult for processors of gluten-free products is that some grain-processing facilities or bakeries can suffer cross-contamination by having stores of ingredients come in contact with gluten-containing ingredients. For this reason alone, the choice of millers and other grain ingredient suppliers is critical to creating gluten-free formulations.
Since the majority (though certainly not all) of the gluten-free challenges still are centered around baked goods, the bulk of efforts to create the channel began with the recreating of breads and bread-like products that had the volume, texture and shelflife of mainstream breads. Flours most often used include potato, rice and corn, as well as newer ones, like amaranth, teff, millet and others. Secondary starches that typically are used for functional purposes of texture and volume include potato-based maltodextrins and resistant starch derived from corn.
Gluten is the protein that provides the binding element that sticks together all the ingredients of bread. It’s no coincidence the word “gluten” is related to “glue.” It is this protein that gives baked products their unique texture and the well-known flexibility to dough that makes it possible to create so many different food products.
To match the characteristics present in wheat-flour-based products that will satisfy the consumer and fulfill the requirements in terms of taste and flavor, food companies tested and experimented with complex development processes that were designed to imitate the natural functions of gluten through an intricate process of replacement and substitution, with innovative and creative production methods.
Not an easy challenge, and, for the better part of the ‘80s and ‘90s, too many gluten-free products simply could not meet consumer expectations. But, today’s baked product developers and food technologists have applied a generous blend of imagination and “out-of-the-box” thinking to overcome these handicaps and previous technical difficulties in making gluten-free versions of mainstream breads and pastries.
“In order to give our gluten-free raw materials, such as tapioca flour, corn meal and potato starch, the same net-like, sticky texture of the gluten-rich wheat flour, we had to go from the end-results to the chemical beginnings,” says Boaz Eliav, development director for GreenLite Co., an Israel-based producer of gluten-free baked goods. “We experimented with ingredients not usually part of the bakery stock of ingredients in order to produce a light, net-like, fluffy texture. But, we also used special molds and machinery, including those normally used in the pasta and meat industry.”
While many manufacturers use different sources of protein, typically from eggs, dairy or a combination of the two, to replace gluten, GreenLite has another challenge, in that most of the company’s products are vegan. To that end, the company developed its own set of ingredient systems made from soy and a special mix of enzymes developed specifically to replace the gluten in its formulations. After GreenLite developed the systems, the company engaged ingredient makers to produce them.
In early years of gluten-free product development, the focus was often on trying to get “good enough” products, without taking into account the specific nutritional needs. This is especially true concerning celiac patients. Iron, calcium, vitamins and nutritional fibers can be deficient, due to the lack of an ability to absorb them. Fortification of flours and other ingredients, therefore, must also be taken into consideration when creating products for this category.
A Matter of Consistency
Once a formulation has been created that has the exact parameters and organoleptic profiles desired, uniformity must be achieved; replication of results is critical.
“We created and established meticulous production procedures until it was possible to achieve a dough with the exact consistency we had aspired to,” adds Eliav. “The resulting dough competes readily with any of the best flour-based doughs. This also involved devising novel ways for batch-production to further entrench consistency of production in a way that would not affect the quality of the end-result under the variety of conditions in the bakery process.”
Conditions that can affect a basic bread dough recipe vary from individual differences in flours from season to season and between suppliers; to slight variations in the other ingredients of the formula; and even down to fluctuations in relative humidity and ambient temperatures in the bakery. Even with identical ingredients and methods, something as simple as the hardness of water used in a dough can mark the difference between success and failure.
Parlaying 30 years of bakery experience that included annual commitment to creating products that are kosher for the Jewish holiday of Passover, the GreenLite bakery was established to provide the market with gluten-free, delicious solutions that meet -- and even surpass -- the quality and flavor of its high-quality standard baked products. The eight-day holiday of Passover includes such strict restrictions on the use of grain ingredients that whole categories of grain-free baked goods have been developed over the years. Products such as these can thus be ideal for the gluten-free diet.
The company began in its local market five years ago with a full range of baked products that includes artisan breads, country-style breads, sandwich breads, baguettes, several types of buns and rolls, yeast cakes, pastries, cakes and cookies. Within a couple of years, GreenLite captured half of the regional market and moved to several overseas markets and recently made inroads into the U.S.
Best Thing Since…
There are numerous companies and producers worldwide who are active in the gluten-free market, specializing in non-baked products. After all, Man does not live by bread alone.
The increased demand for gluten-free choices from so many sources has caused the food industry to confront the problem by tackling it from a different angle: a thorough search for gluten-free alternatives to any food product that contains flour. Manufacturers of non-bakery, gluten-free foods and beverages provide quality solutions that bring some relief to the lives of people who have been diagnosed as gluten-sensitive and also to anyone who chooses to abstain from gluten-containing foods.
Foods and beverages promoted for their gluten-free status run the gamut of confections to kefir to beer and even vodka. For example, Lifeway Foods launched a kefir flavor with oats and chose to use gluten-free oat ingredients. Garden Protein International Inc., manufacturers of meat analog products, has added a gluten-free line that includes beefless ground beef, veggie burgers and black bean burgers. The products are made with non-GMO soy, pea proteins and veggies and are available in 20,000 stores throughout North America.
Carmit Ltd., a private label manufacturer of gluten-free, dairy-free, and fortified confectionery and bakery products, has a dedicated facility that produces gluten-free chocolate coins, toffee-chews, crème-filled wafers, cookies and lollipops for private label clients in North America, Europe and the Pacific Rim. Carmit’s recent focus on gluten-free confectionary concerns inclusions such as cereals used to make up crunchy “clusters” becoming more popular in confections.
According to Steve Grun, CEO of Carmit, the category has been a strong focus for the past decade. Innova Database reports global confectionery launches with a “gluten-free” positioning increased by 46% in 2013 from 2012, but recognized that such product launches still occupy a relatively small niche for confectionery, with “only 7% of confectionery product launches tracked in 2013 filled such positioning.”
Laura Kuykendall, a vice president of Boulder Brands Inc.’s Glutino Foods group, remarks that “Glutino’s strength and focus is beyond the bakery, with snacks as our largest category.” Glutino was among the first food manufacturers devoted wholly to the gluten-free category. Since 1983, the company has developed and marketed a wide range of snacks, cookies, crackers, bars and other products but continues to expand into other, non-baked items.
Wide Open Spaces
Gluten: How Low Can You Go
Justin Prochnow, Contributing Editor
Last August, the FDA issued notice of a final regulation defining the term “gluten-free” and the parameters of its voluntary use in food labeling. Essentially, the regulation provides that a “gluten-free” claim may be voluntarily made if the product does not inherently contain gluten, or any unavoidable presence of gluten is below 20ppm gluten. The new regulation, which appears in the Code of Federal Regulations at 21 CFR 101.91, became effective September 4, 2013, and companies must be in compliance with the rule by August 5, 2014.
The threshold of 20ppm gluten is one that has been utilized in numerous other countries and jurisdictions. The 20ppm level has been recognized by the Codex Alimentarius Standard for Foods for Special Dietary Use for Persons Intolerant to Gluten as a threshold for making gluten-free claims.
As of January 1, 2012, the EU adopted a “gluten-free” definition as indicating that the referenced food contains less than 20ppm of gluten. Canada adopted labeling requirements for gluten sources, which went into effect on August 4, 2012. Health Canada considers foods which do not contain levels of gluten that exceed 20ppm to meet the health and safety intents of the B.24.018, the country’s regulation regarding gluten labeling.
—Justin Prochnow is an attorney and shareholder at Greenberg Traurig, LLP, in Denver, Colo. He can be reached through the firm’s website at www.gtlaw.com.
With the surge in customers seeking gluten-free options, most supermarket chains have dedicated -- and promoted -- whole sections of valuable shelf-space to gluten-free, and those spaces must be filled. And, the demand extends beyond supermarkets. Manufacturers of food products targeting foodservice customers have expanded their options to envelop the category.
“As consumer awareness continues to increase, more and more restaurants and other foodservice operations are discovering gluten-free products as a mechanism to build loyalty by catering to special dietary needs,” says Tina Battistoni, a senior marketing manager at Rich Products Corp. “Rich’s gluten-free products are certified by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization [GFCO],” she explains, “and are individually wrapped to mitigate risk of cross-contamination. From pizza crusts and sandwich rolls to desserts and snacks, the company is committed to making meal choices easier and more enticing for people who choose to follow a gluten-free diet.”
For all these manufacturers creating products that don’t rely on normally gluten-containing ingredients, the formulation challenges tend more toward sourcing issues. For example, while most dairy products -- such as, yogurt and ice cream -- do not use wheat-derived ingredients, many use starches and gums. But, mixed-formulation desserts can be contaminated from other sources.
“The gluten-free nature of ice cream flavors is based on using gluten-free inclusions,” notes Caryn Beatty, marketing manager at Hudsonville Ice Cream and Creamery Co. “To ensure we were meeting [new FDA] requirements, all ice cream flavors [with formulations] not containing gluten were sent out to a third-party laboratory for testing. The laboratory reported all the flavors we sent them had less than 5ppm gluten.”
Whether starches, inclusions, coatings or other ingredients, all must come from dedicated suppliers and facilities. Then, the manufacturers themselves must handle and store all ingredients with care and prepare their formulations in a gluten-free environment. Although the new FDA requirement (see sidebar “Gluten: How Low Can You Go” ) calls for no more than 20ppm gluten in a gluten-free product, many manufacturers have voluntarily chosen to restrict themselves to no more than 10ppm or even down to 5ppm.
Although Hudsonville does not have a dedicated gluten-free line or a gluten-free facility, the company has a “very robust, validated allergen program and sanitation program to ensure there is no cross-contamination between gluten-free products and those containing gluten.” Gluten-containing products are produced following gluten-free products, after which the production line is “thoroughly washed at the end of each day to remove all protein containing residues.”
Adds Beatty, “The sanitation process is verified daily through equipment swabbing before production begins. We also validate the effectiveness of our sanitation process by testing our CIP rinse water for the presence of allergens. Through the use of controls and testing, we are able to confidently produce gluten-free products without a dedicated line or facility.”