Processors Meet Challenges with Consumers on Gluten Free Facts Versus Fiction

Aug. 1, 2014
By now, most people have heard of gluten and many are trying to avoid it, even where it doesn’t exist.

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The Hartman Group

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.

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.

“Unlike the low-carb trend, where foods didn’t have much texture and taste, the gluten-free trend has yielded products with improved flavor and texture that is helping keep the gluten-free marketing appeal stay with consumers,” he continues.

Another aspect of the trend to look at is what is referred to as “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” (NCGS). NCGS is a self-reported sensitivity to gluten. The prevalence of this condition is unknown because there are presently no specific diagnostic criteria, no blood tests, no specific biomarkers that define sensitivity to wheat or any other grains. Diagnosis can be made anecdotally, on the basis of symptoms that occur subsequent to a gluten challenge and relief from the same symptoms when gluten-containing foods are removed from the diet.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a federal program designed to assess the health and nutritional status of Americans, reported 49 cases of suspected NCGS among 7,762 subjects (about 0.6 percent) in the period from 2009 to 2010. On the other hand, the University of Maryland, in its care center for the diagnosis of gluten-related disorders, reported the condition in 347 of 5,896 (about 6 percent) of subjects studied from 2004 to 2010.

Boulder Brands' Glutino brand specializes in gluten-free versions of popular, traditional products.

A recent study, “An Italian prospective multicellular survey on patients suspected of having non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” published in the journal BMC medicine, attempted to define a clinical picture of this new “syndrome” and determine its prevalence compared to celiac disease. The one-year study, carried out in 38 Italian health centers, identified 486 patients with suspected NCGS based on gastrointestinal distress (abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, esophageal reflux) and systemic manifestations (fatigue, headache, joint and muscle pain, leg and arm numbness, “foggy mind,” dermatitis, depression, anxiety, and anemia). After other diseases had been ruled out, the estimated prevalence appeared to be only slightly higher than that of celiac disease.

A combination of forces will continue shape the market, generating a demand for gluten-free and wheat-free grain products, as well as secure methods of creating products, as indistinguishable as possible from the gluten-containing foods.

“We have enjoyed steady growth of our business in recent years,” says Janet Souza, a manager at Lundberg Family Farms, Richvale, Calif. And while she attributes most of that growth to consumer demand for organic and sustainably produced products, "It's safe to assume that growing interest in gluten-free foods is driving growth of the entire rice category, in which Lundberg is a significant player and therefore a beneficiary of the gluten-free trend.”

Yet even rice and other naturally gluten-free grains, such as buckwheat and teff, can get caught up in the backdraft of the “gluten-is-bad” paradigm. “We routinely mention that our rice products are gluten-free as part of our overall nutritional messaging, also emphasizing that our rice products are whole grain and GMO-free, among other benefits,” adds Souza.

Making it without

Many modern and traditional foods depend on gluten and its rheological properties. An important market generated by the trend toward gluten-free products centers on the ingredients that can replace this versatile food component. Since gluten is a protein, creating acceptable gluten-free bakery products demand replacing gluten as a protein source.

Gluten forms a protein matrix that gives bread volume and texture. According to the American Egg Board, Park Ridge, Ill., replacing gluten with a protein ingredient like eggs that could provide structure to the bread is one potential solution. “Eggs — also a protein source — are known for their foaming ability,” explains Fadi Aramouni, a researcher at Kansas State University. His research reveals eggs can have a positive impact on the quality of gluten-free bread.

Eggs showed a distinct impact on bread roll quality, increasing volume and cell elongation. “Using eggs as part of a gluten-free bread roll formulation, we were able to increase volume and improve color and texture,” says Aramouni. “The addition of eggs made the texture softer, plus helped maintain moisture and retard staling, which is important to maintain shelf life.”

A common shortcoming of gluten-free bread is quick staling. Staling reduces the breads palatability because the stale bread becomes dry and leathery. An important mechanism of staling is when the moisture migrates from the starch granules to the interstitial spaces of the bread, a process called degelatinization.

The gluten-free craze has increased interest in "ancient grains," most of which do not contain wheat or gluten.

Gluten is a good antistaling agent. “Most of the issues we see with gluten-free baking are simply due to recrystallization of the starch in the product — in other words, staling,” says Troy Boutte, group manager of the bakery/fats and oils division for DuPont Nutrition & Health Inc., New Century, Kan. “The problem in gluten-free is almost identical to what we see in traditional wheat-based baked goods, and the solutions are similar. Emulsifiers, such as monoglycerides and lecithin, will help with reducing crystallization of the amylose fraction of the starch.

Anti-staling enzymes, such as DuPont’s PowerFresh G4 and PowerFresh G+, can help with the amylopectin portion of the starch. This constitutes about 75 percent of the starch, and therefore most of the staling. Hydrocolloids also help with anti-staling by holding on to moisture and reducing moisture movement in the baked product, another contributor to staling. The emulsifiers, enzymes and hydrocolloids work very well together to give good eating quality and greatly extend shelf life.

One of the difficulties in staying on a gluten-free or a wheat-free diet for celiac and wheat allergy sufferers is the extent to which wheat is used in the modern diet. As these conditions have become more recognized, processors have responded with a variety of ingredients to expand both food and beverage choices.

Briess Malt & Ingredients Co., Chilton, Wis., provides a variety of sweeteners and syrups for specialty applications. Tapioca maltodextrins function as binding, bulking agents, carriers, coatings, fat replacers and fillers for gluten-free bakery formulations. Tapioca syrups and solids act as natural sweeteners. A recent ingredient in the gluten-free product development toolbox is white sorghum syrups. These are produced from the starchy heads of grain sorghum and function as substitutes for sucrose and malt extracts. They provide both sweetness and browning properties.

Sorghum is a gluten-free grain that originated in Africa and is now cultivated in tropical climates worldwide. Similar in appearance to wheat berries (the whole grains of wheat), it is one of several unique gluten-free whole grains offered by Bob’s Red Mill, Milwaukie, Ore., including grains like amaranth, teff, buckwheat and dozens of other grain and pulse flours.

The trend toward gluten-free foods is a convergence of many forces. The necessity for at least two demographics to avoid either wheat or the protein complex that provides its unique properties, plus the difficult-to-diagnose condition referred to as NCGS that affects a small but poorly-defined portion of the population are main drivers of the medically required avoiders of wheat.

Add to these a pervasive misperception that carbohydrates are primarily responsible for obesity, and the trend is one that is definitely here to stay. Luckily, ingredient technology has expanded to match, and processors can choose to serve this wide and burgeoning market.

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