Your next big new product development assignment may well be gluten-free … and for good reasons. Consumer awareness of wheat protein allergies is soaring, driving the trend, but the situation is complicated by the appeal of fad diets.
Children sometimes exhibit allergies to wheat, but this condition generally disappears as they grow older. Celiac disease is something else. Experts estimate that 1 in 133, or nearly 3 million Americans, are at risk for celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that attacks the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. The disease is difficult to diagnose, requiring both a blood test and a biopsy, and even among those at risk, many will never develop the disease. Once they do, however, the only treatment is to eat gluten-free for the rest of their lives.
Also, some trendy diets tout gluten avoidance as an overall prophylactic measure, perceived as good for people suffering a wide range of diseases from autism to osteoporosis, from diabetes to rheumatoid arthritis and even for those with no health issues. Science lacks definitive proof of these claims, but the diets remain popular.
Thus, gluten-free products can be seen as both a niche market and an ascendant fad. Certainly, demand has been growing. Market researcher Packaged Facts estimated the gluten-free market to be worth $1.6 billion in 2009, with a compound annual growth rate of 28% over the past four years. And one thing is certain: The category has very appreciative fans.
SANS CERTAIN PROLAMINS.
To qualify as glutenfree, a food must contain none of the storage proteins, also called prolamins, found in certain cereal grains: wheat’s gliadin, barley’s hordein and rye’s secalin. All must be avoided by celiac sufferers. Experts disagree about avenin, the prolamin of oats. Some celiac patients show no effect from eating oats, while others do, and there’s no way to predict individual cases. Spelt, popular in health foods, is a form of wheat and also contains gluten. However, corn’s storage protein, zein, presents no risks, nor do the storage proteins of amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, rice, sorghum and teff.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) requires the Food and Drug Administration to establish a regulation defining the term “gluten-free.” In 2007, the agency issued a proposal that set the threshold at no more than 20 ppm gluten and provided guidance on the subject, but no additional rulemaking has taken place.
When bakers think of gluten, they generally have in mind gliaden and glutenin, the two major proteins of wheat flour that form gluten when mixed with water. This viscoelastic protein matrix, unique to wheat gluten, supports the flour’s starch component and the other ingredients in the formulation, resulting in the characteristic light, airy crumb of wheat-based baked foods.
Baking without wheat’s gluten presents certain challenges to the formulator. Gluten-free baked foods are not new to the marketplace, but the ingredients and ingredient systems that make such products possible have changed and for the better. While pioneers in the category struggled to solve structure, texture and taste issues of using gluten-free flours and gums, a new group of ingredients has emerged with enhanced functionality.
WHOLE GRAIN, NO GLUTEN.
Consider multigrain flour, which is usually milled from wheat combined with rye, oats and barley. In mid-March, ConAgra Mills, Omaha, NE, introduced Eagle Mills Gluten-Free All-Purpose Multigrain Flour to the natural products industry. The new flour blends the “ancient grains” amaranth, quinoa, millet, sorghum and teff with brown rice and tapioca flours, a mixture that “achieves the optimal blend of taste, nutrition and performance for gluten-free breads and other bakery products,” according to Elizabeth Arndt, PhD, director of R&D for ConAgra Mills.
“Whole-grain nutrition was important to us in developing this gluten-free flour ingredient,” she continued. “Recently, traditional gluten-free products have come under fire for less-than-stellar nutritional profiles. Gluten-free consumers are not only interested in bettertasting foods with more ‘normal’ texture; they’re also searching for better-for-you options.”
She quoted the June 2009 issue of Harvard Health Letter that recommended a gluten-free diet richer in vitamins and fiber, identifying the “Super Six” whole grains (amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff). She also noted research by the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, New York, NY, into the benefits of adding ancient grains to gluten-free diets. That 2009 study found improvement in intake of protein, iron, calcium and fiber when standard gluten-free flours were replaced with those made from alternative grains such as oats and quinoa.
But how do gluten-free products made with the new multigrain flour taste? “In blind taste tests with more than 125 adult consumers, bread made with the Eagle Mills flour was preferred 3 to 1 when compared with the two top-selling gluten-free breads,” Dr. Arndt said.
“Let’s face it,” said Bob Allin, marketing director, North America, for National Starch Food Innovation (NSFI), Bridgewater, NJ. “Most glutenfree baked foods don’t quite match gluten-containing products, especially when it comes to texture and shelf life.” He reported that initial tests of NSFI’s new range of gluten-free bakery ingredients found a dramatic improvement in terms of consumer liking.
Using its expertise in corn, tapioca and rice, NSFI optimized several formulations for cookies, muffi ns and cakes and submitted them to a sensory panel. Evaluation covered a continuum of consumer appeal criteria, from dry and crumbly to moist and chewy, and from grainy to smooth. The prototypes were also benchmarked against leading gluten-free brands. Results showed that the new formulations came very close to conventional glutencontaining products on important attributes — smooth, moist and chewy — and even beat existing commercially produced gluten-free items. The company also measured shelf life, with outstanding results.
“With this data in hand, we are very confident that we can assist bakers in producing exceptional gluten-free products without major compromises,” said Yadunandan Dar, PhD, material scientist, NSFI.
Shelf life stability has also plagued gluten-free products. Corn Products US, Westchester, IL, took advantage of tapioca starch’s natural water-binding and freeze-thaw tolerance. The proprietary process that yields Expandex modified tapioca starch, according to Eric Shinsato, Corn Products’ technical sales support manager, enables creation of a moist and expanded crumb in finished gluten-free baked foods and extends the product’s shelf life as well. It can also reduce the amount of gums needed.
On the ingredient’s dedicated Web site, he described a 7-day shelf life test conducted on glutenfree bread made with Expandex. It was evaluated against conventional wheat bread after being held at room temperature, frozen and refrigerated conditions and then tasted at room temperature, microwaved and toasted. “The gluten-free bread had a sweet flavor that was unaffected by storage or reheating , had an enhanced flavor and improved moistness when microwaved and showed improved crispiness and chewiness when toasted.” Mr. Shinsato said.
High-quality sensory values will help gluten-free baked foods avoid becoming “also rans” in the race for consumer appeal. The use of the proper starch can give gluten-free doughs muchneeded elasticity and the finished products the right amount of chewiness and a consistent crumb grain, according to Penford Food Ingredient Co., Centennial, CO. Company president John Randall described the new PenTechGF ingredient system as a revolutionary advance. “Our scientists have developed unique formulations that deliver truly superior taste, texture and appearance that consumers — and the industry — have been waiting for.”
Penford supplies dextrin and starches based on potato, tapioca, rice and corn. The new system, based on these ingredients, yields gluten-free foods the whole family can enjoy, according to the company. It described results as “food products that have all the wellness attributes of gluten-free combined with the visual, mouthfeel and flavor of wheat-based items marketed to the general public.” Specifically, this means bread with good volume and not too gummy or dry, cakes with light and fluffy textures, pastries with resilient body, muffins with slightly coarse crumb grain and pizza dough and crusts with normal flavors.
“We take a unique approach to gluten-free formulating,” said Kyle Marinkovich, marketing manager, Cargill, Inc., Wayzata, MN. Rather than “substituting out” ingredients, the company’s new line of glutenfree baking bases seeks to replicate the functionality of gluten. This method brings together the company’s application expertise, food science capabilities and ingredient portfolio. The bases encompass a spectrum of applications: breads, cakes, cookies and muffins. “For a given product style, the base may involve a different technology, but it takes the same approach, based on the needs of the product and how functional gluten is in that product.”
All bases consist of a mixture of dry materials. What the baker adds depends on product type. “For example, to make gluten-free bread, the customer would add water, yeast, flavor and any inclusions, while the cookie base would need the addition of fat, flavor and inclusions,” Mr. Marinkovich said.
The intent is to help bakers shorten their product development cycle in the fast-growing gluten-free category. “The bases are fully customizable, allowing the baker to optimize them according to need,” Mr. Marinkovich said. They also reduce the number of ingredients a user needs to source, store and process. He described the bases as “platforms” on which the customer can build gluten-free products. All comply with FDA’s proposed definition for gluten-free.
As the previous sampling of gluten-free formulating approaches suggests, a great deal of progress has been made in these ingredients and formulation systems. For example, gluten-free “solutions” dominated exhibits at the recent Natural Products Expo West. Attendees to the coming Institute of Food Technologists Food Expo (July 17-21), International Baking Industry Exposition (Sept. 26-29) and AACC International annual meeting (Oct. 24-27) can expect to see even more progress in gluten-free formulating and ingredient alternatives.