It takes many things to keep a child happy. Especially in the event of a special occasion, such as a birthday or team celebration. Providing joy in the life of little Joey or Jane is a goal for most parents.
To Joe Elliot, it's his business.
As the vice president of research and development for Chuck E. Cheese, Elliot works at keeping kids happy and well fed. The company and its franchisees operate a system of 566 Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants located in 47 states and eight foreign countries or territories. The goal of these outlets is to create lifelong memories through food, musical robots, games and play areas.
Elliot recently won a battle in his war against blandness. Although children (or parents) with Celiac disease or some gluten intolerance aren't a large segment of the general population, he wanted them, too, to be able to enjoy the fun that goes with having a pizza at Chuck E. Cheese.
According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, 1 in 133 people have Celiac disease, meaning it affects at least 3 million Americans. It is an inherited autoimmune disorder that impacts the digestive process. When a person who has Celiac disease consumes gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, the individual's immune system responds by attacking the small intestine and inhibiting the absorption of important nutrients into the body.
The victory for the customer who couldn't enjoy a pizza at a Chuck E. Cheese arrived via a trade show meeting. Elliot chatted with Mike Conte of Conte's Pasta. They worked together to create a tasty gluten-free, individual pizza, which is shipped in a specially sealed package that goes directly into the store's oven. Then it's served to the customer in that same safety packaging so no cross-contamination may occur. Each pizza even comes with its own disposable cutter.
"Yes, it is good to be able to fill a niche like that," Elliot said. "Parents have shown their appreciation and can see to what extent we have gone to provide an enjoyable experience. Often they will buy one or two of our frozen products and take them home."
It was a three-way effort of a food processor, a restaurant/entertainment operator and a packaging company that resulted in a safe, transportable product from the processor directly to oven and to the customer.
It wasn't an overnight success, as the process took a couple of years.
"We wanted to make sure it was safe and tastes good," said Judy Sabella, vice president at Conte's Pasta Co., Vineland, N.J. "We would not serve it to someone and take that chance and at the same time we had to study packaging and discover what we could come up with."
Elliot, who has about 40 years experience in the food industry, had been seeking a gluten free option for a long time, and his forays into a gluten-free pizza were mostly disappointing. Cross-contamination might be a problem in his stores where a young employee might not grasp the importance of keeping one pizza separate from all the others. Taste, though, was still the biggest concern.
"A couple of companies came out with a product to show us," Elliot said, "and most of them were terrible, darn near inedible."
Conte's, which grew from the family matriarch making pasta for neighbors to a restaurant and now to a dedicated Italian food provider for both the foodservice and retail sectors, has a full line of fare. It has become dedicated to the gluten-free market. It constructed a dedicated gluten-free facility in October 2009.
Another leader in the gluten-free movement followed a similar route. Caesar's Pasta began providing Italian delicacies as a deli. It has now branched into worldwide sales.
A brother in the Caesar's family discovered he was gluten-intolerant, and that helped move the business to create gluten-free items as well as certified organic, vegan and dairy-free products.
"It really brings such a joy to us as a company, and people really appreciate our food," said Ron Lodato, senior vice president at Caesar's Pasta, Blackwood, N.J. "It has been very intensive and time consuming for us. But it pays off when a customer says, 'This is great. I haven't been able to enjoy manicotti since I was diagnosed (with Celiac disease)."
Besides the work of creating a flavorful dish from rice flour or other ingredients, it has to have the right elasticity for an entrée such as manicotti. Contamination from wheat products is watched carefully.
"Cross-contamination is a big issue and we take it very seriously," Lodato said. "We remove all the wheat from the facility, test and then test again in the morning. When we start running our gluten-free products we test continually. Our products are less than 5 parts per million, which is the same as gluten-free. We do our best and there is no possibility of cross-contamination."
More than pizza and pasta
There is, of course, much more to the gluten-free revolution than just pizza and pasta.
The American Egg Board cited information from a Mintel Group market research study that has shown gluten-free food sales have grown 27 percent from 2009-2011 to an estimated $6.1 billion. The report said better tasting food, rising incidence of Celiac disease and celebratory endorsements are some of the keys to the 88 percent increase in products using the claim gluten-free from 2008 to 2012. It also shows a 134 percent increase in the gluten-free claim to all U.S. product launches with an egg ingredient.
The Mintel study notes that gluten-free claims on U.S. menus rose an impressive 582 percent since 2008. National chains such as Dominos and Dunkin Donuts have gluten-free options on their menus.
"Yes, gluten-free product development is a growing need," said Bryan Scherer, director of research and development at Penford Food Ingredients, Centennial, Colo. "As awareness and diagnosis of Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity continues to increase, the demand for high quality gluten-free products is steadily trending upwards. Until recently, gluten-free products were relegated to health food stores or to health sections of chain stores. We are now seeing these products make their way into the mainstream shopping aisles of national grocery chains."
The growth comes by the way of studious work to create better products.
"Initially, gluten-free product developers were merely looking for reasonably acceptable taste and texture," Scherer said. In general, these products were nutritionally void, being comprised mostly of starch and other carbohydrates. There is now a strong push to enhance the nutritional value of these products, particularly in the areas of protein, fiber and vitamin and mineral fortification.
"In addition, with the exception of dry mix products, items such as gluten-free breads have a limited shelf life and tend to rely on frozen distribution chains," Scherer continues. "There is increasing interest in optimizing the shelf life for products distributed through ambient or dry storage chains as a means of economizing the cost of the product."
Penford is keeping up on the revolution with products such as its PenTech GF technology, which is a customized gluten-free system that produces products that compare well to their gluten-containing counterpart. These systems are tailored to each developer's needs. And due to the need for improved nutritional profiles, Penford also offers a non-GMO potato-based resistant starch, PenFibe RS, which provides fiber enrichment and/or caloric reduction.
Because pea is not a major allergen, Nutralys pea protein from Roquette America, Geneva, Ill., is suitable for gluten-free formulations, especially when paired with corn starch for a gluten-free breading. Variations of Nutralys also can be GMO-free, lactose-free and isoflavone-free.
Bakery is, of course, a key market for gluten-free formulations. "Bakery is one of our big markets now," says Allen Freed, CEO of Gum Technology Corp., Tucson, Ariz. "It's hard to do gluten-free baked goods without gums."
Venice Bakery is proud of its additions in the gluten-free arena. It has added wraps, calzones and chocolate cookies to its line at its dedicated gluten-free facility. It also sees helping restaurants become gluten-free as a step forward.
"We offer training to avoid cross-contamination to help restaurants across the country that are new to serving gluten-free dishes," said Jimmy DeSisto, president of Venice Bakery (www.venicebakery.com), Garfield, N.J. "Our training is offered through non-profit organizations and available to all customers who want to carry items from Venice Baking Co.
"The first and most important thing that must be done for a restaurant to begin a gluten-free program is to learn about Celiac disease and gluten intolerance. The staff must be educated about the dangers of cross-contamination and the steps that need to be taken to ensure that the food is safe for their customers," he says.
Snacks lead the way
The snack category has been the largest driver in the gluten-free market, according to the Mintel study. Sales in the savory snack area -- chips, pretzels and other snacks -- rose from just over $200 million to just shy of $400 million from 2009 to 2011. The cold cereal category rose to $178 million from just over $100 million in the same time frame.
A gluten-free diet is the only real help for Celiac sufferers and is vital to those with gluten intolerance. Besides helping with weight loss, the diet has also been known to help fight skin diseases, migraine headaches and, because of its aid to digestive health, has been linked to recovery in many ailments from arthritis to diabetes.
There also are downsides to a gluten-free life. Simply avoiding gluten-containing foods also can mean cutting out such essential nutrients as folate, fiber and iron.
"Gluten-free has been growing and seen a lot of interest in that area," said Anne Brown of the Scoular Co., Omaha, Neb. "Now manufacturers are working at ensuring the nutrition in the market is good." Her company is looking in new areas to help supply more nutrition. "Quinoa and garbanzo are some of the new flours used in the gluten-free area," she said.
Scoular said the addition of pea fiber and pea protein from the Canadian yellow pea will help in many gluten-free applications. Propulse is a natural food-grade pea protein isolate that offers functionality and nutrition. Centara is a vegetable fiber from the hulls of the pea and offers moisture retention and nutritional fiber enrichment, Brown says.
Food providers see the growth beyond the 3 million Celiac disease sufferers because, if one member of the family is gluten-sensitive, often the whole family will have a gluten-free meal at least some of the time.
However, there are some in the industry who feel the gluten-free revolution has hit its apex. "There are signs that the gluten-free market has peaked or is close to peaking," said Troy Boutte, group manager for bakery/fats and oils at DuPont Nutrition and Health, New Century, Kan.
"The actual number of gluten-intolerant consumers doesn't match the demand for gluten-free foods," he continues. "Demand far outpaces those medically in need of a gluten-free diet. Part of this is due to a whole family changing eating habits because one family member is gluten intolerant. Part is due to people simply testing a trendy diet.
While there is no proven health benefit of eating gluten-free for those with no gluten allergies, people have been turning to gluten-free diets because it is trendy and to see if it might possibly solve some other medical issues.
"Since maintaining a gluten-free diet is difficult, tends to be more expensive and is often less palatable, it is likely that those who derive no benefit from eating gluten-free will eventually resume their normal diets," he concludes.
Whether getting wheat, barley, rye and oat grains out of the diet is a trend or a fad, or whether it is a climbing staple of the American diet, its growth in taste and deliverability have helped those in need and helped food producers supply a quality product.
"Yeah absolutely," Elliot said about the feeling good after working with Conte's Pasta and delivering a successful product. "I got the prototype in, brought it to the executive staff and the legal staff and risk management people. I told them I want to try to do gluten-free. They all said, 'This is a pretty good pie.'"
The battle was about the same at Caesar's.
"We had some extreme difficulties, especially with the elasticity we needed. It was challenging, we didn't know how we were going to make some items," says Lodato. The continuous testing process paid off. "We wanted something that would not only run well but taste as good as our wheat-based products. We went to a presentation with a retailer and didn't tell him it was gluten-free, and he didn't even realize it. That's when we knew we had a 'wow' product. And that wow is what we are always looking to create."