Increasingly Gluten-Free

May 12, 2011

Until recently, celiac disease was considered rare among Americans. Celiac disease is trigged by an adverse reaction to wheat, barley, and rye, and in 2003, the results of a large, multicenter study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that 1 in 133 Americans have the disease.

But what may seem like a meager crumb of consumers is actually a lot more. Reports indicate that an estimated 16 million Americans may have gluten sensitivity; not an official diagnosis of Celiac disease, but a health condition that still means avoiding gluten altogether. And then there are those consumers who avoid gluten for perceived health benefits—a growing trend in consumer shopping.

Between 2006 and 2010, the gluten-free food and beverage market grew by a whopping 30%, according to Packaged Facts’ (Rockview, MD) market research report, “Gluten-Free Foods and Beverages in the U.S., 3rd Edition.” From the many natural food stores specializing in these offerings to companies like General Mills (which reformulated five versions of its Chex cereal to be gluten-free), gluten-free appears to hold significance, not just as a health niche, but as an ever-expanding market segment.

Beckee Moreland of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA; Ambler, PA) notes the gluten-free evolution of one baked good: the pretzel. “First we didn’t have gluten-free pretzels, then we had them, and they actually tasted good,” she says. “Now, they’re dipped in yogurt and available as soft pretzels, too. What we’re seeing is a real expansion of gluten-free offerings, a broadening of categories.”

But gluten-free baking is no cake walk. Take wheat flour out of a baked good, and you compromise shape, color, texture, crumb structure—even the taste of a finished product.

“Most of these attributes don’t come close to what the consumer would expect from a wheat-based product,” says Yadunandan Dar, applications technology manager at National Starch (Bridgewater, NJ). “For example, typical wheat-containing products can be moist and chewy, whereas gluten-free products tend to be brittle and dry.”

The troubles of traditional gluten-free baking are felt by the customer, but also the manufacturer, with shelf life and baking processes being extremely compromised.
Few alternatives exist without these quality issues, but increasing customer demand is sparking research into gluten-free ingredients that minimize the problems.

National Starch says its combinations of rice flour, tapioca flour, and a bit of physical modification can greatly mend the gluten-free issues by bringing back that chewiness with a longer shelf life and other benefits. Marketed as Homecraft Create Gluten-Free, two versions of the wheat flour alternative are available: GF 10 (high on rice flour for open-cell structures like breads and muffins) and GF 20 (high on tapioca flour for dense goods like cookies and brownies).

Both ingredients are clean label (listed as “flours”) while offering nutritional values comparable to the same goods produced with wheat. Fine-tuning goods with other complementary ingredients can also be a plus. Xanthan gum can improve binding (a quality inherent to wheat), and certain starches like Expandex, a modified tapioca starch from Corn Products International (Westchester, IL), can fine-tune texture, further increase shelf life, and even aid in moisture retention.

Besides the obvious wheat flour, gluten in baked goods can be found in some unexpected places; in cases where it’s expendable, companies are making the switch. Danisco recently removed the gluten from its MicroGard and NovaGard preservatives—derived from cultured dextrose and cultured milk fermentates—to satisfy growing customer demand.

Just taking gluten out of a product does not ensure it is safe for consumers to eat, says NFCA’s Moreland. For further information on preparing and processing gluten-free goods, check out NFCA’s online course called G.R.E.A.T. (Gluten-Free Resource Education Awareness Training).