Food Manufacturers Reformulating Childrens' Foods For More Gluten-Free Options

Chuck E. Cheese experiences the challenges and rewards of reformulating without gluten.

By Rory Gillespie, Contributing Editor

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"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."

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