Processors Meet Challenges with Consumers on Gluten Free Facts Versus Fiction

By now, most people have heard of gluten and many are trying to avoid it, even where it doesn’t exist.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

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Gluten is a general name given to the protein class that confers the elastic properties to wheat, properties that allow us to make bread and other risen bakery products. The gluten imparts structure that allows flour to rise and hold its shape when baked. Gluten exists not only in wheat but, to a lesser degree, in relatives of wheat such as rye, spelt, triticale, barley and kamut.

Gluten is a composite of two protein variants: glutenin and gliadin. For the vast majority of persons, these proteins pose no dietary problem whatsoever. They are digested normally and provide sources of vital amino acids. However, for a small percentage of the population, gluten is a health threat.

What makes this situation so complex is the term gluten is often mistakenly used synonymously with wheat, or worse yet used to implicate all grains as possible health threats. So, many who assiduously avoid gluten and even other grains could be doing so for the wrong reasons — or for no reason at all, placing an unnecessary burden on themselves and their families. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the fact that gluten-free dieting is a major trend.

The demand for gluten-free foods is not driven solely by the genuine needs of a small group of individuals affected by celiac disease or wheat allergy. In fact, more than 10 times as many people have taken on the restriction than medically need to. This is due to the larger perception that gluten-free foods are in various ways preferable to gluten-containing foods.

For processors, this is where the challenge comes in. Pressed to keep up with food trends, they are forced to walk a fine line between serving a huge consumer demand and helping to inform consumers as to the unlikely need to so restrict themselves. For the processors making foods and beverages containing gluten or having contact with gluten-containing ingredients, the gluten-free tsunami forces a decision between radical reformulation and processing changes or ignoring a fast-growing, highly lucrative market that shows little sign of diminishing anytime soon.

Gluten — who needs it?

Gluten is of primary concern to persons with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population. It’s characterized by a severe inflammation of the small intestine in response to gliadin exposure. The abnormal immune reaction can cause a range of digestive disturbances, most critically damage the mucosal lining of the small intestine, in particular the absorptive villi. In addition to severe gastric distress, this disrupts the absorption of vital nutrients.

A gluten-free diet is critical to celiac sufferers, as there is no proven treatment other than complete elimination of gluten from the diet. Blood tests for specific antibodies and a biopsy of the intestinal tissue are required to definitively diagnose celiac disease. As important as it is to diagnose celiac disease, it is equally important to distinguish celiac disease from wheat allergy.

Back to Nature rice crackers

Rice flour has become a good substitute for wheat flours, especially in snack products.

For both, while most sufferers can tolerate up to 20ppm, many will react to even 5-10ppm. Because of this, most processors of gluten-free products have been transitioning to the stricter limits of lower than 5ppm, even though they are not legally required to do so in the U.S.

Though some outward symptoms may be the same, wheat allergy is very different from celiac disease. This is very important because on a label wheat-free does not always mean gluten-free. A wheat allergy is not an autoimmune disease, but rather an immune reaction to one or more proteins in wheat. (Any food allergy is an overreaction of the immune system to a foreign protein.)

True wheat allergy can produce symptoms that range from mild to life-threatening anaphylaxis. For that reason, all products that contain wheat must display that information clearly on the label. A person with a wheat allergy, for example, could enjoy a product that contained barley — a grain off-limits to someone with celiac disease.

Both celiac disease and wheat allergy are rare conditions. Nevertheless, the demand for gluten-free products continues to grow as many consumers, rightly or wrongly, see gluten, wheat and grains in general as something to shun. “In the past three to four years we’ve seen a significant increase in demand for gluten-free products,” admits Domonic Biggi, CEO of Beaverton Foods Inc., Hillsboro, Ore. “We have about 26 gluten-free specialty condiment flavors now, due to this increase."

“The biggest impact on the fancy foods market is the impact on product diversity,” says Mary Waldner, founder and chair of Mary’s Gone Crackers Inc., Gridley, Calif. “When we come out with new items that are gluten-free, it gets us more attention because it’s what makes us  more unique.”

There is an interesting positive consequence of the gluten-free trend. “The gluten-free market has given rise to interest in other grains, as well as pseudo grains such as chia, flax, and quinoa, and seeds, legumes, rice and tapioca,” acknowledges Darren Schubert, vice president of sales and marketing in the Eugene, Ore., office of Grain Millers Inc. “We have seen a significant increase in demand for gluten-free oats in the past five years, and expect double-digit growth in this category for the next two years, minimum.” Oats, while themselves gluten-free, were avoided until recently due to cross-contamination in milling and processing facilities.

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