KANSAS CITY – A decade ago gluten-free was an unfamiliar concept in the culinary world. Such terms as dry, stale and tasteless described the few gluten-free products in the marketplace. Today, thanks to ingredient innovations and progressive research chefs, delicious is now associated with the rapidly growing category of foods.

Gluten is an elastic substance that forms when two proteins — glutenin and gliadin — are mixed with moisture. The two proteins bind water, connect and cross-connect to form elastic strands of gluten. The proteins are found in all forms of wheat, including durum, semolina and spelt, as well as a number of other grains, such as rye and barley.

Some consumers cannot tolerate gluten. People with gluten intolerance know to avoid traditional sources of gluten such as bread, pasta and cookies. There are also many food ingredients based on the grains, including breadings, stabilizers and thickeners. Such foods as cold cuts, chicken nuggets, gummy and hard candies, soups and sauces, and many low or non-fat products often use the ingredients, and thus such foods are hidden sources.

The issue is that even the slightest amount of gluten in a food can wreak havoc on the digestive system of someone who has gluten intolerance. For those individuals with celiac disease, which is an autoimmune intestinal disorder that interferes with the absorption of nutrients, ingestion of any gluten may increase the risk of nutritional and immune-related illnesses and is ultimately life threatening.

Driving innovation

The $10.5 billion gluten-free retail food and beverage category grew 44% from 2011 to 2013 as the rate of celiac disease diagnoses and awareness of, and interest in, gluten-free foods increased. Interestingly, three-quarters of consumers who do not have celiac disease or sensitivity to gluten eat gluten-free foods because they believe they are healthier, despite a lack of scientific research confirming the validity of this theory, according to the market research firm Mintel International, Chicago.

“The view that these foods and beverages are healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts is a major driver for the market, as interest expands across both gluten-sensitive and health-conscious consumers,” said Amanda Topper, a food industry analyst with Mintel.

Meeting increasing demand for gluten-free, new product offerings provide alternatives to traditional sources of gluten, such as baked foods.

This health halo will continue to propel the category during the next few years.

“The most common misconception about gluten-free foods is that the products lack the taste, texture and overall quality of those that contain gluten,” said Janet Carver, culinology group manager with Ingredion, Westchester, Ill. “The reality is that there are very good gluten-free products in the market and there are very good alternatives to gluten in the form of specialty flours, texturizers and other ingredients that help product developers develop high-quality products.”

Brook Carson, director of R&D for ADM Milling, Overland Park, Kas., said, “The easiest applications to swap gluten-containing ingredients for gluten-free ingredients are soups and sauces, as there are numerous non-gluten thickening agents and binders. Baked goods are more challenging, as the gluten found in wheat has unique elastic properties that provide structure and texture to baked goods. When using non-wheat proteins, gums and gum/starch blends are often used in the formulations to provide structure.”

Understanding the limitations and ingredient synergies helps grow the category.

“The gluten-free food category will continue to grow as an increasing number of manufacturers develop better-tasting gluten-free foods,” Ms. Topper said. “Category appeal beyond those with celiac disease, coupled with a new FDA ruling for gluten-free product labeling, suggests the category will grow out of its market as just another diet trend.”

In August 2013, the Food and Drug Administration said products that contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten may voluntarily make a gluten-free claim. The claim applies to products that naturally contain no gluten, such as milk, meat and produce, as well as to products that contain ingredients that have been processed to remove the gluten.

Today’s ingredient suppliers offer culinologists a plethora of options to allow for the development of delicious gluten-free offerings.

Options to wheat

The first step in formulating gluten-free is to remove gluten-containing grains. Depending upon the application, some alternative grains work well on their own, while others require assistance from functional ingredients.

Rice flours work especially well in unleavened baked goods. Rice flours and rice meals are made from different varieties of rice and are available in a range of different particle sizes, from very coarse to ultra-fine.

Rice flours works especially well in unleavened baked goods.

The Bunge Ingredient Innovation Center, Bradley, Ill., recently developed gluten-free rice panko bread crumbs for both food service and industrial manufacturing.

“At an industrial-scale food processing evaluation pilot plant, we used the crumbs on both chicken and fish,” said Brian Anderson, director of innovation for Bunge Milling. “The process consisted of a pre-dust, batter, breading and par-fry, followed by a freezing step.

“The frozen food was then either baked or fried. Our testing confirmed that the gluten-free rice panko bread crumbs provided superior performance over wheat crumbs. With the application of a pre-dust and a batter mix, the crumbs provide uniform, complete coverage with strong adhesive properties and excellent durability.”

Corn flour and meal bring unique flavor and texture to breadings, batters and baked goods. If the sweet, nutty flavor of corn is too powerful for an application, the corn may need to be blended with other gluten-free grains.

“The texture and flavor of battered or breaded products can be compromised when using gluten-free ingredients,” said Matt Gennrich, a research food technologist with Cargill, Minneapolis. “Blends of modified and native starches, as well as corn flours, can provide the proper viscosity for a batter and simulate finished product texture.

Corn flour and meal bring unique flavor and texture to breadings, batters and baked goods.

“We offer whole grain corn flours that are 100% whole grain. These corn flours are available in a variety of granulations and cook-levels for different viscosities and can be tailored to specific needs.”

Not all corn-based ingredients come from yellow or white corn. Suntava Inc., Afton, Minn., offers corn flour, meal and grits derived from purple corn kernels. The ingredients help create a point of differentiation in the marketplace.

“Our purple corn is more than just a pretty color,” said Terry Howell, vice-president of business development. “In addition to all the goodness found in whole grains, each of our ingredients is naturally packed with health-enhancing anthocyanins.”

Anthocyanins are antioxidants that are responsible for the corn’s deep purple color. The ingredients are a source of natural color and have application in artisan bread, crackers, pizza crust and desserts.

“We developed ingredients specifically for gluten-free applications,” Ms. Carver said. “Our specialty flour systems derived from rice and tapioca has functionality very similar to that of wheat flour. One of the major benefits these products provide is their clean label.

“We also offer a modified specialty starch-based solution derived from potato, tapioca and corn that serves as an excellent bulk flour system and enables the commercial production of gluten-free baked goods. The ingredient yields an outstanding texture in bread as well as a number of other products and can help enhance shelf life.”

When ancient is new

Ancient grains are also an option. They add culinary adventure and great-tasting whole grain nutrition to all types of applications. Common ancient grains are amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff. Each grain offers unique flavors and textures.

“Amaranth and quinoa are both great sources of protein, while teff is unusually high in calcium,” said Colleen Zammer, director of product marketing for Bay State Milling Co., Quincy, Mass. “They can be milled to different granulations depending on application.”

Ancient grains, such as quinoa, offer culinary adventure and whole-grain nutrition.

From a sensory perspective, teff tends to have caramelized sugar notes, while amaranth is peppery and quinoa is earthy.

Tubers and pulses (dry beans, dry peas, lentils, etc.) may be milled into flours and used just like white flour.

“We offer a patent-pending premium cassava flour,” said Carter Foss, technical sales director, American Key Food Products, Closter, N.J. “It has a bland-to-neutral flavor profile. When used in baking, it functions similar to cake flour in that it forms a thick batter rather than a dough.”

Pulse flours are loaded with nutrients and complement today’s better-for-you trend.

“Our cooked, dehydrated edible beans and bean powders are ideal for use in gluten-free product formulations,” Ms. Carson said. “Many of the gluten-containing flour substitutes used in these products are lower in protein. These edible bean powders can help improve the nutritional profile of the finished product. The protein and fiber content of the edible bean products is 20% to 25% with a typical carbohydrate content of 60%. The bean products are also naturally low in fat and sodium.”

Heather Maskus, project manager with the Canadian International Grains Institute (CIGI), Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, said, “We’ve found that using pea flours and starches together works well as a breading for chicken nuggets. The golden yellow color of pea nuggets is very appealing for this application. And these products maintain a desirable texture under heat lamps.

“Noodles are much more difficult to reformulate using 100% pulse flours. Adding other ingredients such as flax, rice and potato can create noodles with interesting flavors and textures.”

The flavor of pulse ingredients poses a challenge in some items, especially since many consumers expect gluten-free products to be bland.

“But the strong flavor profile of pulses is increasingly being embraced because they wake up the taste buds,” Ms. Maskus said.

Coconut flour has emerged as a flavorful gluten-free flour option. It is high in fiber, low in digestible carbohydrates and a decent source of protein. It also has excellent water-absorption properties, which helps keep baked goods moist, according to Mr. Foss.

Almond flour is useful because of its neutral flavor and pale color.

All tree nuts are inherently gluten-free. They may be processed into various forms, including flours and meals, and substitute for regular, all-purpose or whole wheat flours in baked and fried foods.

Almond flour, in particular, is quite useful because of its neutral flavor and pale color.

“A key attribute of almond flour is its ability to maintain hydration, making it an ideal and practical inclusion in a wide range of batters,” said John Csukor, research chef with KOR Food Innovation. “For example, in an application such as gluten-free lump crab cakes, almond flour’s ability to bind and hold moisture adds texture and density. For some flavorful crunch, simply add ground almonds to the batter.”

Flour processed from tree nuts may substitute for all-purpose or whole-wheat flours in baked and fried foods.

With a consistency similar to corn meal, almond flour works in place of bread crumbs in meatballs and in coatings for chicken and fish. It is also a good substitute for traditional flour in quick bread-type recipes, such as muffins, fruit and nut bread, and even pancakes. In general, more eggs are required when baking with almond meal to provide more structure.

Hydrocolloids and humectants

Many gluten-free flours require the addition of starches and gums to mimic the missing gluten.

“While no gluten-free project is necessarily easy, the easiest gluten-free applications are where gluten is not being asked to provide a great amount of structure to the finished product,” said Steven Baker, a food scientist with TIC Gums, White Marsh, Md. “For example, many breading applications use the breading for texture and a carrier of flavors where the coated product provides most of the strength.

“Pastas, pizza crusts and wrap applications are the most challenging because gluten is instrumental to the strength and elasticity of these products. When switching to gluten-free flours, the dough tends to be extremely sticky and difficult if not impossible to shape or sheet out. The lack of gluten also contributes to problems with the finished product as well. Gluten-free products have a tendency to be brittle and lose their integrity while being handled.”

Here’s where hydrocolloids can assist.

“Gums thicken or gel the liquid portion of food systems, providing body or texture to the product, offsetting any lack of structure in the gluten-free matrix,” Mr. Baker said. “By adding an appropriate amount of gums or blend of gums, you can turn water-thin pancake or crepe batters into a product that has structure and can even suspend fruit particles or other inclusions.

Hydrocolloids may help prevent brittleness in gluten-free formulations for pastas, pizza crusts and wrap applications.

“For flat bread or pizza crust applications, gums can help stiffen the dough so it can be sheeted out or reduced more easily. Xanthan gum tends to be the most readily used gum for this type of system, but with careful control of calcium content, sodium alginate is effective as well.”

Mr. Gennrich added, “Xanthan gum and locust bean gum can assist in both texture and in setting structure for gluten-free applications. Often times a combination of multiple gums has a synergistic effect that is greater than using each individual gum on its own.”

Moisture retention is a key in gluten-free formulations. Hydrocolloids bind water and keep moisture locked in. Even in a product such as meatloaf, when bread crumbs are removed, the addition of some gum can help control moisture loss during baking.

Another ingredient that may assist with keeping moisture locked in is honey, a natural humectant.

“In gluten-free foods, where texture and flavor often suffer, honey offers foods a distinct flavor, color and textural enhancement by retaining moisture,” said Catherine Barry, director of marketing for the National Honey Board, Firestone, Colo. “On average, honey’s moisture content is about 17%, helping chefs and formulators keep gluten-free foods moist. In addition, honey’s low pH and antibacterial properties prevents bacterial growth in food. These benefits give honey an advantage over other sweeteners by giving chefs an all-natural mold inhibitor that also helps keep products moist.”

Honey also has the ability to mask off-flavors that are sometimes present when ancient grains and alternative flours are used, as these ingredients can carry bitter flavor notes.

With so many ingredient options available, formulators are less challenged with producing higher quality products with broad appeal. This has a growing number of companies entering the gluten-free category, which is why it’s no wonder Mintel predicts the gluten-free food market will hit $15.6 billion by 2016.