Annie's Homegrown Foods has been making macaroni and cheese and other prepared foods since 1989. The products are certified organic and/or made with organic ingredients. But in addition, the Berkeley, Calif.-based company offers a substantial portfolio of gluten-free products.
Making pasta-based dishes without wheat is not easy, says the company's chief innovation officer Bob Kaake. Then again, for folks in the food business there is nothing easy, nor casual about any aspect of allergen control.
“Gluten is needed in many products to create the structure and texture of the finished products, especially in traditionally formed baked goods,” Kaake says. “A formulator needs to be creative to emulate the structure using a blend of alternate flours, starches and gums. There has been some terrific progress in the understanding of gluten-free development challenges, so today’s gluten-free products often can taste quite similar to their wheat analog. But it also often requires a lot of trial and error.”
Kaake says Annie's uses a proprietary blend of non-wheat flours when it reformulates one of its products for the gluten-free crowd. Tasting “quite similar” may not be as important as being clearly gluten-free for the 1 percent of the population that suffers from celiac disease. But for the much larger number (as many as 20 percent of today's consumers by some estimates) who are seeking to limit gluten in there diet, a product that tastes dramatically different might be a non-starter.
Of course, gluten is not alone; there are eight major allergens food processors must work around or without when they hope to reach out to consumers who suffer from food allergens. Many of them (including dairy and eggs) are just as much a staple food ingredient (if not more so) than wheat. Eggs for instance have all sorts of uses in everything from baking to candy making.
So today's food formulator needs an arsenal of replacement products that can provide some of the same flavors, textures, functional properties and nutrients as those ingredients that need to be avoided.
The eight major food allergens are:
- Peanuts (the main cause of allergies in children)
- Tree nuts (such as walnuts, pecans and cashews)
- Shellfish (such as shrimp and lobster—the main cause of anaphylaxis in adults)
- Cow’s milk
Each of these generally affects a different portion of the population, but some allergic persons suffer from multiple allergies.
Allergy to peanuts is the most common allergy for children and it appears to be on the rise. According to one study, the number of children in the U.S. with peanut allergy more than tripled between 1997 and 2008. Studies in the United Kingdom and Canada also show a high prevalence of peanut allergy in schoolchildren.
Researchers estimate that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies. Food allergens affect one in every 13 children (under 18 years of age) in the U.S. That’s roughly two in every classroom. As many as 20 percent of those with peanut allergy are also allergic to tree nuts.
In the worst case scenario, exposure to allergens can cause anaphylaxis, a reaction that restricts airways and can be fatal if not treated quickly.
To one degree or another, each of the major allergen foods can be replaced with something that will help emulate flavor, texture or function in food processing. Even fish and shell fish can be replaced with bean curd for protein and flavor analogs derived through fermentation.
“Often when allergens are removed from a food system, a hole is left in the formulation and a replacement must be found to provide the qualities that the allergen provided. Hydrocolloids can be very beneficial in replacing the missing attributes,” says Lorelie McRae, a food technologist with Gum Technology, a Tucson, Ariz., business unit of Penford Food Ingredients. “For example, when gluten is removed from a baked good, structure is lost causing the product to collapse. Hydrocolloids such as xanthan gum, tara gum or konjac can be used to help replace the structure that has been lost. Another common allergen, eggs, often provides structure as well as emulsification.”
When removing eggs, formulators can sometimes use a hydrocolloid that provides structure in concert with a gum that provides emulsification such as gum arabic.
When dairy is replaced in a product such as a cheese-based food, proteins are removed and a system must be found that will emulate the structure and texture that have been removed. A combination of xanthan gum and carrageenan can help to replace the elasticity, McRae says. It can be used in conjunction with konjac to provide a product that has the ability to melt as well as stretch.
Edlong Dairy Technologies, Elk Grove Village, Ill., offers a full range of flavor products that emulate the flavors of milk, cream and butter. These can be used to replace those ingredients in dairy-free formulations, but they can also provide buffering and masking functions in other analog formulations.
“Our flavors can be used to compensate for flavor loss or change, mouthfeel and/or masking of off notes in a given application, including gluten-free,” says Anne-Marie Butler, applications scientist, with Edlong. “These issues arise with gluten-free requirements, just as they do with no-allergen formulations, or in reformulating to reduce cost or manage the variability of raw materials.”
Although nuts are an allergen, they can also be used to replaced dairy or soy. Almond milk can be used to replace dairy ingredients, as can soy-based milks. Almond flour has come into use recently for gluten free diets. Hughson Nut Co. says there has been a significant huge increase in sales of blanched almond flour.
Adding or subtracting soy
Soy protein is on the allergen list, and yet soy can serve as a replacement for other proteins, and it is gluten free.
“For gluten free products, soy ingredients such as soy flour, concentrates and isolate can be used in combination with other ingredients, such as sorghum, to improve the protein content in the finished food products,” says Mian Riaz, a soy protein scientist who servers on the United Soybean Board.
Soy oils do not contain soy protein, Riaz adds, so they can be used without fear of allergic reaction.
Another key consideration when making gluten-free products is the processing and handling of the raw dough, says Ying Bian, senior application scientist with Penford Food Ingredients. “The right balance of flours, starches and gums will provide structure with good crumb development yet maintain a soft moist product over time. Developing a raw dough that is machinable is important to consider as most gluten-free products tend to be more like batter than dough when in the raw form.”
The situation can get even more complicated when removal of more than one allergen is necessary, says Ying. “A large obstacle when removing multiple allergens is trying to maintain the original functionality provided by the allergens," she says. “For example, when removing gluten and eggs from a gluten-free cake, keeping the height and structure the same or similar to the original can be a complex task which often requires a multifaceted approach involving different technologies.”
When formulating with non-gluten flour, moisture retention can be a big issue, as well as structure, and elasticity shortfalls. Replacement flours often lack structure and elasticity and lose moisture quickly, says McRae. “Fiber such as citrus fiber can help with moisture retention in conjunction with gums such as xanthan gum and konjac that provide structure and elasticity, she says. “Microcrystalline cellulose can also help provide structure in a baked good while it is being heated.”
Quinoa is another good replacement for wheat (or barley or rye). Qrunch Foods, Denver, offers an organic, gluten-free line of non-meat burger patties made from quinoa, millet, pinto beans and lentils.
Since most burger replacements are made from soy, Qrunch has some differentiation. While the SKUs include flavors like Italian and Sweet Curry, the heritage grains themselves provide a nutty flavor, says Jim Adams, CEO and co-founder.
Specialty grains like millet and quinoa are becoming a bit easier to source, he believes. “It might be difficult if you are just spot buying,” he says. “But we have a good relationship with our supplier, so when we go to them they have been very good at helping us find the grains we need.” Qrunch Burgers are currently available in 280 Super Targets around the country.
Whatever approach is taken, for any allergen, food processors will continue to be pressed to develop products that are safe and taste great, says Edlong's Butler.
“I believe that consumers expect great tasting food and beverages regardless of dietary restrictions,” she says. “It is our job as manufacturers to ensure we meet expectation and this is what we constantly work on. In our lab we don’t believe in saying 'it tastes good … for a gluten free product or a dairy free product etc.' We always work towards 'it tastes great!' "