Gluten-Free Products Are Going Gangbusters

July 29, 2015
The gluten-free market is thriving, and products are improving in terms of taste, texture, nutrition and their ability to replicate traditional products. Is this why so many people eat gluten-free whether they need to or not?

Eating "gluten-free" isn't just a fad. The consensus in the scientific community is celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivities are indeed bona-fide conditions with numerous — and potentially serious — manifestations.

Strict, life-long gluten avoidance is critical to those with celiac disease, a chronic, inflammatory autoimmune disorder affecting approximately 1 percent of the population in the U.S. And gluten avoidance isn't easy. Foods containing gluten are abundant.

A protein composite found in wheat and related grains, such as barley and rye, gluten gives elasticity to dough, helps it rise and keep its shape and often gives the final product a chewy texture. Digested normally by most people, gluten is especially noteworthy for its sources of vital amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. The body can't make amino acids on its own. If we don't get essential amino acids, proteins break down, resulting in muscle loss and problems with repair.


A healthy market

According to the January 2015 “Gluten-Free Foods in the U.S., 5th Edition” report from Packaged Facts, gluten-free sales are growing 34 percent each year, and they're taking over more and more grocery shelf space.

Gluten-free products accounted for about one in 10 global food and drink product launches in the 12 months through April, according to Innova Market Insights, and has since increased to about 18 percent. The U.S. gluten-free market posted 2013 revenues of more than $10.5 billion, Mintel reports, adding that about 24 percent of consumers currently eat gluten-free foods or have someone in their household who does. By 2016, Mintel expects that the market could climb to $15.6 billion.

Now that the gluten-free food industry has a federal regulation to follow, more processors are getting into the gluten-free food category. The FDA labeling rule stipulates that single and multi-ingredient products labeled gluten-free must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten, no matter how this level is achieved. In addition, gluten-free manufacturers often require all ingredient suppliers to be certified gluten-free to help reduce the chance of cross-contamination.

So why is a small percentage of America's eaters such a driving force in the food market?

"This [growth] is partly due to improved labeling regulations, but also to the rising awareness of gluten intolerance in the diet, and the development of more mainstream and good-tasting gluten-free products across a whole range of food and drinks sectors," notes Innova's director of innovation Lu Ann Williams. Mintel says many consumers are opting for gluten-free versions of foods simply to test them to determine if they could be gluten-intolerant or gluten-sensitive, and a quarter of consumers admits to eating gluten-free foods for weight loss.

Some try gluten-free products because of the big trends in organic and sustainably sourced foods. Others are deluged with the abundance of misinformation and the confusion about the definition of gluten (some think gluten and wheat mean the same thing, although they do not). Regardless, Mintel reports that all gluten-free food segments saw higher sales from 2013-2014. Snacks, bakery and cereal products − traditionally rich in gluten − saw the most significant product launches, and the snacks segment fared the best.

"Overall, the gluten-free food market continues to thrive off of those who must maintain a gluten-free diet for medical reasons, as well as those who perceive gluten-free foods to be healthier or more natural," says Amanda Topper, a food analyst at Mintel. "The category will continue to grow in the near term, especially as FDA regulations make it easier for consumers to purchase gluten-free products and trust the manufacturers who make them. Despite strong growth over the last few years, there is still innovation opportunity, especially in food segments that typically contain gluten."

Going mainstream

Many conventional foods are being introduced in gluten-free versions, which is allowing the gluten-free category to become more mainstream and changing the perception that all gluten-free foods are bland and boring. Nutritional levels of many gluten-free products have been lacking overall, but that too, is also improving.

Chex cereals from General Mills are gluten-free, have plenty of flavor and are fortified with vitamins and minerals to deliver 25 percent of the daily dose of five B vitamins and half a day’s worth of iron and folic acid. General Mills recently announced that Cheerios and Lucky Charms would soon be available in gluten-free versions.

Bread lovers can enjoy Udi’s Gluten Free Foods' tasty whole-grain bagels, which are made from brown rice flour, teff flour and flax seed meal. They have 3g of fiber and an impressive 7g of protein (however they incorporate more than 470mg of sodium). One of the top gluten-free bakery brands in the country, Boulder, Colo.-based Udi's was the first bakery to launch gluten-free buns nationally at retail.

One of its most popular customer requests is for bread containing more fiber and ancient grains. Udi's Ancient Grains Breads contain a balance of nutrients and vitamins and feature earthy varieties like Millet-Chia and Omega-Salba. Millet and Salba contain 6g of fiber per serving and more than 350 mg of Omega 3, 6 and 9. “One of Udi’s goals is to consistently provide gluten-free, nutritionally based products to our consumers that continue to taste like the conventional product,” states Denise Sirovatka, marketing vice president.

Gluten-free pasta historically sat on the low end of the scale when it comes to B vitamins and iron. But Ancient Harvest Quinoa Pasta from Quinoa Corp., Boulder, Colo., includes 4g of fiber and nearly 10 percent of the daily iron recommendation, riboflavin and thiamine per 2-oz. serving, plus it's virtually sodium-free. Made from a nutty organic corn and quinoa blend, it rates well for taste and a nonsticky texture.

Gluten-free frozen entrées from Amy's Kitchen, Petaluma, Calif., are tasty enough that one can forget they're gluten-free as well as nutritious. Amy's now makes more than 100 gluten-free products that are low in sodium. Amy's Mattar Paneer is a savory Indian vegetarian meal with curried peas with cheese, organic basmati rice and vegetables. The dish provides 13g of heart-healthy vegetable protein, 6g of fiber and half of the sodium (390mg) of Amy’s regular paneer.

Pizza is another category gaining gluten-free traction, as 38 percent of restaurant menus offer gluten-free choices, according to recent research from Food Genius. It's also taking up more supermarket freezer space. Amy's Kitchen has gluten-free Rice Crust Cheese, Spinach, Pesto and Single-Serve frozen pizzas that are full of protein, vitamins and iron.

Fuller on flavor

Gluten-free in 2015 doesn’t mean flavor-free like it used to. Any of the Artisan Nut thins crackers from Blue Diamond Growers, Sacramento, Calif., have a crisp crunch. Available in Sesame Seed, Chia Seed, Multi-Seeds and Flax Seed and Honey Cinnamon and Honey Mustard, the gluten-free, wheat-free baked crackers are suitable for topping and dipping. Blue Diamond says it samples and tests each production run of these crackers to confirm that gluten levels do not exceed 20 ppm.

To satisfy a sweet tooth or a craving for rich chocolate, Dr. Lucy’s new gluten-free Triple Chocolate Brownie Crisps are bite-sized snacks that have captured the crispy part of pan brownies: the edges. Each chocolately bite is light and crispy, and the chocolate is made with a mix of 72 percent dark chocolate chunks, chocolate chips, cocoa and organic Madagascar vanilla. Chocolate lovers will like the knock-out smell alone. The decadent snacks come in 4.5-oz zippered pouches and are vegan, non-GMO and contain no peanuts or tree nuts.

Made in a dedicated gluten-free facility using tested ingredients, Dr. Lucy's products contain no milk or eggs. "We employ the very best allergen control methods. Our dedicated bakery incorporates strict standards," notes Dr. Lucy Gibney, who developed the gluten-free treats after discovering her child had severe food allergies. Based in Norfolk, Va., the company strives to produce cookies that prove a modified diet doesn’t have to be a limited one.

Formulation improvements

Many ingredients are being developed to improve gluten-free foods. Adding chicory root fibers, such as inulin or oligofructose, can supplement natural fiber in baked goods, says Kevin Bael, product manager-specialty rice ingredients, at Beneo Inc., Morris Plains, N.J. "The use of inulin and oligofructose also improves, taste and mouthfeel and enhances a product’s shelf life," he says. Beneo offers functional ingredients derived from chicory roots, beet sugar, rice and wheat. "Inulin derived from chicory not only adds sweetness but can also be used to modify color and enhance the flavor of gluten-free baked goods," Bael adds.

Tate & Lyle Food Systems, Hoffman Estates, Ill., presented a clean-label, gluten-free cake base incorporated into mini bundt cakes at the July IFT Food Expo in Chicago. The base delivers the texture and moistness of a traditional cake. It was combined in gluten-free applications with Tate & Lyle's Promitor soluble fiber for bulk and texture and Claria functional clean-label starches.

"We're working with bakers to use a creative mix of ingredients in gluten-free products," says Tammy Reinhart, senior manager of business development. "No one solution will replace gluten in all bakery products. Each product is unique. Not all sources of gluten are created equal. Manufacturers should consider the type and amount of flour used in the conventional product in order to understand how to mimic functionality unique to that application."

Maintaining proper shelf life is a universal struggle in formulating gluten-free applications, experts agree. Preserving moisture "is essential to overcoming shelf life issues that may result from removing gluten," Reinhart points out. "Adding sweeteners like Krystar Crystalline Fructose enables excellent humectancy while extending the shelf life of baked goods. The sweetener also enhances flavor."

Grain Millers became involved in producing oat fiber with low gluten levels as more customers began asking for them. Its BCS family of organic gluten-free oat fibers provides insoluble fiber with nutritional and functional benefits (texture enhancement, clean label, cost efficiencies and digestive health support) for cereals, breads, snacks, tortillas, fried foods, bars, beverages and meats.

BCS30 natural oat fiber is produced from food-grade oat hulls through a chemical-free, proprietary process. The oat fibers are provided with gluten levels lower than 10 or 20ppm, depending on customer requests for a specific gluten level, explains Rajen Mehta, senior director of specialty ingredients at the Eugene, Ore., offices of Grain Millers. "These are tested on an individual ton basis. We plan to offer the BCS40 family in the near future."

When replacing gluten, "a formulator [still] needs all of the ingredients used for traditional products," Mehta explains. "However, depending on the role of gluten development in the traditional product, the specific ingredients used and their levels can remain almost unchanged or can change dramatically. For traditional gluten-containing grains (like wheat), the ingredient should be cleaned to achieve gluten levels below 20 ppm."

Depending on the application, other gluten-free alternatives include native flours or starches, which can build body and elasticity, chewiness and crumb structure, says Ricardo Rodriguez, marketing manager for confectionery and bakery at Ingredion, Westchester, Ill. Cook-up native or modified starches can act as texture modifiers, and pre-gelatinized, native functional or modified starches, gums or hydrocolloids can control dough viscosity. Texture modifiers can prevent staling and proteins or fibers enhance nutrition and develop structure and color.

Pulses are another alternative. Rodriguez notes bases from peas, lentils, fava beans and chickpeas are available as flours. "Pulses add the nutritional benefits of protein to a wide range of foods ... and can boost nutritional profiles, replace allergens and support popular label claims such as non-GMO and vegan," he says.

Gillian's Expands Gluten-Free Capacity

Bob Otolo was an executive chef when he began making gluten-free rolls for his daughter Gillian, who discovered she had celiac disease in 1992. Otolo kept perfecting the recipe, which combined soy, tapioca and rice flours, and eventually opened Gillian’s Foods.

Now, after producing gluten-free products for 20 years, Gillian's Foods is relocating to a larger facility in Salem, Mass., that will ease its growing pains and nearly double its capacity.

"Relocating is allowing us to set up efficient production lines and use lean manufacturing principles," notes Nicholas Sideri, operations manager and husband of the company's namesake, Gillian. "We'll add new [dough] depositors, proofers, mixers and larger freezers, which will streamline production. Having a completely gluten-free production facility is a very big reason why we're successful."

Gillian's makes more than 32 branded and private-label fresh, frozen and shelf-stable breads, pastas and desserts, all gluten-free.
Safe Quality Food (SQF)-certified and monitored regularly by third-party and municipal auditors, Gillian's takes cross-contamination and quality assurance very seriously. "We have a lot of inspections, but our products are safer," Sideri says.

The company recently updated several breads (garlic bread and French bread pizza have been very successful) as well as its entire dessert line, which includes gluten-free mini cupcakes, brownies, whoopie pies and cakes. This involves adding moisture, using new mixing processes that result in lighter, softer wheat-like characteristics and adopting ingredients that increase stability and structure, Sideri explains. "All of the new products are very tasty, and have a wheat-like appearance and taste," he mentions. "We're also investigating salt substitutes and are currently phasing out GMOs."

Finding ingredients that bind dough mixtures so they stay pliable and elastic is tricky, adds Robert Otolo, son of the founder and head of the R&D department. "Wheat and gluten give bread its elasticity. Without it, breads can crumble. We found ways to increase elasticity using a variety of gums, proteins and binders."

Otolo says he tries to think outside of the box when it comes to different ingredients to use in recipes. "Certain percentages of hydration, leavening and other factors can be applied to gluten-free creations to enhance flavor," he notes. Tapioca, potato and corn starches work well to provide the needed volume in breads, he says, so it pays to experiment with various flours, because some can dry out and taste gritty. Taste is one of the most important aspects of gluten-free bread, he says.

"There are many benefits to going gluten-free in addition to treating celiac," notes Sideri. "People are trying it to address dietary issues. The gluten-free [movement] will continue to increase as more food companies and restaurants offer gluten-free foods. It's becoming the norm."

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