In 2011, when General Mills, Inc. launched its glutenfreely.com web site, it was a way for the company to communicate directly with consumers interested in gluten-free products. Last year, the Minneapolis-based company shut down the web site, but not because it was not working. Rather, it was because the gluten-free category is working so well with products becoming ubiquitous throughout the retail marketplace.

“It was an experiment for us,” said Ken Powell, chairman and chief executive officer, in an interview with Food Business News. “We wanted to create a site that was more than just a store. It was a place for people who were interested to discuss the topic and interact with experts.”

Don Mulligan, General Mills’ chief financial officer, added, “We learned a lot, but gluten-free has exploded in retail stores and our advantage of having an on-line store diminished. It was a good experiment, but not a long-term proposition.”

While the future of the gluten-free market is the subject of debate, it is clear companies have responded, and even some iconic brands are offering gluten-free varieties. For example, ABC Bakers, a licensed Girl Scout cookie maker, is testing Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Shortbread Cookies in 20 select markets as part of the Girl Scouts’ 2013-14 cookie sale.

The cookies are made with a blend of rice flour, tapioca flour, corn starch and potato starch. A serving of four cookies has 130 calories and 7 grams of fat. The cookies meet the 5 parts per million (p.p.m.) limit established by the Celiac Sprue Association, which is 75% lower than the Food and Drug Administration’s 20 p.p.m. proposed restriction.

It is clear gluten-free foods have gone mainstream. Bimbo Bakeries USA, Tasty Baking and Barilla have jumped in. General Mills has been there for a while, as has Rudi’s Organic Bakery. The Whole Foods Market Gluten Free Bake House at Morrisville, N.C., opened in 2004, and in 2012, Europe’s major gluten-free bakery, Dr. Schär, opened a 60,000-square-foot facility in Swedesboro, N.J.

It is no longer just the three to four million Americans who suffer from some form of gluten or wheat intolerance or celiac disease. It’s their families, too, and the millions of people who select gluten-free food because they believe it to be a healthier choice.

Greater expectations

With the proliferation of gluten-free product choices consumer expectations have risen. It is no longer a matter of having a gluten-free product. The product also must have a taste and texture similar to a non-gluten-free item. In some cases, the product also must have a similar price.

“Our gluten-free cereal products tend to be comparably priced to our non-gluten-free cereals,” Mr. Powell said. “But some products, like our Betty Crocker dessert products, which have custom sourced ingredients, will have a higher price compared to a standard item.

“But even with the price difference, I think consumers appreciate the better range of gluten-free offerings. Before it was even harder and more expensive, and people were making many of the products from scratch. I think we have created real value for consumers and given people who suffer from celiac disease a range of opportunities.”

The challenge for gluten-free product formulators is understanding the range of ingredient options that may help them develop better gluten-free products.

“If you go into the market and try some of the earlier products, they were pretty awful,” said Roni Eckert, a food scientist with Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, Wis. “But back then the bar was not very high. Now it is starting to rise. The level has come up on what people expect they can have.

“As you get more R.&D. people working in gluten-free and the people who are adopting gluten-free continue to have higher expectations, I think better quality is achievable, but it’s going to be very hard.

“I don’t think there’s a ceiling. It is just, from what I’ve seen after doing items for over a year, every failure is a new learning step. Gluten in every aspect of baking has such unique characteristics. To mimic that with other ingredients is incredibly time consuming. And then there’s the time for baking; it’s not instantaneous results.”

Mel Festejo, chief operating officer for American Key Food Products, Closter, N.J., said three years ago the issue wasn’t quality — it was availability.

“Since then, more gluten-free businesses have emerged in the last five years, most of who are in the baking segment,” he said. “The entry of co-packers into certified gluten-free operations has given momentum to this growth. This growth meant that consumers have more abundant choices for a wide variety of gluten-free products. Quality has become the top priority. Consumers have come to expect truly good products, not just tolerable ones.”

More categories are growing

From a product perspective, Mr. Festejo said gluten-free bread and bread mixes are still the most sought after gluten-free product.

“Given that this is the most difficult G.F. application, only a small number of companies dominate this segment,” he said. “As formulators get exposed to more ingredients and acquire a better understanding of their functionalities, growth could even accelerate further.

“Savory snacks are another fast-growing segment, mainly because there are already plenty of successful brands of conventional gluten-free snack products. Capitalizing on the increased consumer awareness for gluten-free products for health considerations, the mainstream brands have embraced the gluten-free labeling of their products. They have also started to incorporate non-traditional, natural ingredients to further enhance the healthy image of their products.”

Vanessa Klimczak, senior product applications technologist with the Bay State Milling Co., Quincy, Mass., said consumers expect increased nutrition from such products.

“You can use the unique qualities of gluten-free grains and seeds to make them work for you to create new flavors and textures,” she said. “Our formulators are expected to be the experts in nutrition and functionality of these gluten-free grains, so we are constantly creating new formulas in ever-expanding product categories.”

Two product categories gaining attention include gluten-free breakfast items and crepes, Ms. Klimczak said.

“There still remains tremendous potential in the areas of gluten-free artisan breads, beverages and sides,” she said.

Jennifer Stephens, marketing manager for Penford Food Ingredients, said the market for gluten-free products is moving beyond everyday items.

“Not only are everyday baked goods such as bread and cookies a target for product development, but also, specialty baked goods such as pastries, pitas, naan and breadsticks,” she said. “Another area for gluten-free growth is snacks. Portability and portion size is driving the innovation in the snack category. Since some snacks are considered meal replacements, there is a need for gluten-free snacks options.”

Dealing with common issues

But misperceptions with regards to the development of gluten-free products persist.

“It is commonly thought that all or most grains contain gluten, when in fact, there are more grains that don’t contain gluten than those that do,” Ms. Klimczak said. “Secondly, many developers assume that they are limited to rice flour and xanthan gum as options for tackling gluten-free formulas, when in fact, there are a gamut of grains, seeds, flours and functional ingredients that can help gluten-free bakers.

“Thirdly, it is not safe to assume that processing a gluten-free dough can be done with the same equipment and/or parameters as a conventional dough. Many times, processes need to be modified to accommodate the often sticky and non-elastic gluten-free dough characteristics.”

Ms. Klimczak advises product formulators she works with to keep an open mind when developing gluten-free items.

“If you approach a gluten-free product as a new product, and not a match to a conventional product, it can prove to be delicious and satisfying in its own right,” she said. “The expectations of a gluten-free product are different, but that doesn’t mean they are low.”

Mr. Festejo noted that a common misperception among product formulators is that starches and flours from the same source are the same and that they have the same characteristics and functionalities.

“This misperception is often what prevents some companies from taking the quality of their products up a notch since they fail to appreciate the distinctions and, consequently, what functional benefits, say, a flour may provide versus the starch,” he said. “This is especially true with flours and starches from plants that are not grown in the U.S.”

Bryan Scherer, vice-president of research and development for Penford Food Ingredients, said product developers need to understand how gluten-free products perform during production.

“For instance, gluten-free baked goods such as bread may have very different rheological properties during production that could require different types of handling and manufacturing equipment than regular gluten-containing dough,” he said. “The second and maybe more important piece of advice is to realize the complexity of converting a production line over to gluten-free in order to avoid cross-contamination with gluten.

“The federal standards for gluten-free require that equipment, ingredients and finished products test no higher than 20 p.p.m. of gluten presence. Rigid cleaning and sanitation regimens must be developed and companies must ensure that the ingredients they are sourcing are certified as gluten-free.”

For companies interested in raising the bar on their gluten-free items, Ms. Klimczak has some recommendations.

“There are many grains and grain forms available to develop texture and culinary flare,” she said. “Fermentation of ancient grains is possible to develop unique flavors and help create more artisanal products. Flax-meal and chia can add body and mouthfeel; millet or pumpkin seed can add crunch; sunflower or sesame can add visual appeal as part of a topping; buckwheat, teff, and amaranth can add unique flavor notes for which a chef may use as inspiration; and quinoa and garbanzo can boost nutrition.

“These grains also have potential beyond baked goods and could provide an opportunity to diversify foods by incorporating unique grains and seeds into side dishes, beverages, breakfast, or desserts.”