The market for gluten-free baked goods and snacks grows every day and has proven to be a bandwagon that many bakers are willing to jump on despite its challenges in formulating and processing. New products enter stores every day whether it’s a new application or simply another company seeking to ride the trend’s rising popularity.

“Gluten-free consumers are now presented with cakes, pizzas, snacks and sweet goods suitable for their intolerances or chosen diets — a far cry from when bread was the only gluten-free bakery product on the shelf,” said Nicole Rees, business development manager, flax, Glanbia Nutritionals, Fitchburg, WI. Now that bakers have successfully tackled the first challenge of ­gluten-free baked foods — getting the finished product to actually hold together — a host of new challenges await as new products flood this budding market.

“With the growing number of gluten-free products on the market, there are now more choices, and people with celiac disease will be selective in choosing what products they eat,” said Vanessa Klimczak, senior product applications technologist, Bay State Milling Co., Quincy, MA. “Gluten-free products have evolved, and with that evolution, nutrition, texture and taste are more important than ever.”

When gluten-free first came onto the scene, consumer demand was simple: Make a bread/roll/cookie/sweet good that could stand on its own without the structure of gluten. “Oftentimes, the consumer aspect was neglected, so the nutrition wasn’t always great, the overall product quality wasn’t always good, and there wasn’t as much variety as the wheat-containing products,” said Patrick O’Brien, bakery marketing manager, Ingredion, Westchester, IL. Today, bakers aim their sights on improving those aspects and creating products that mimic their gluten counterparts.

A diversified product portfolio is the new frontier in gluten-free formulating. Innovation in this market continues as bakers and snack manufacturers strive to distinguish their gluten-free offerings from the increasingly fierce competition. “There is still a lot of room for growth, and formulators are focused on nutrition, texture, flavor and creating variety for a gluten-free consumer,” Ms. Klimczak said.

Explorations in taste, texture

No matter whether a food scientist is working with gluten or trying to remove it altogether, the first and foremost priority is making the finished product taste good. Despite all of their hemming and hawing about price and nutrition, consumers buy food based on how something tastes more often than not. That’s why flavor and texture are even more important in this category.

“With new entrants in the gluten-free market, the bar will continue to rise, particularly related to improved product taste and texture,” said Beth Peta, marketing manager, Cargill Food Ingredients, Minneapolis. “These aspects are especially challenging in gluten-free products, and there is always a desire to deliver the same eating experience as the gluten-containing counterpart.”

Mimicking the tasty gluten-full originals has always been the end game when talking about gluten-free.

“The main goal is to create a gluten-free product that the consumer would not recognize as such, meaning it would taste and look the same as its glutinous counterpart,” said Tara Froemming, marketing coordinator, SK Food International, Fargo, ND.

When removing gluten from the equation, baked goods can take on some undesirable traits such as grittiness, low volume and reduced shelf life. “The primary challenge is texture. It’s difficult to create the tender yet chewy texture of wheat bread, and many gluten-free baked goods have a short bite and slightly grainy crumb,” Ms. Rees explained.

Texturizers can help bakers smooth over those undesirables. Ingredion offers a modified tapioca starch, which helps manage all the grittiness, volume and shelf-life issues. The company’s clean-label option also takes care of overall texture modification and proper moisture management, which can also be a challenge in gluten-free products that tend to be dry.

Using the right grain and granulation can address grittiness issues while also providing an appealing visual element to the product. “There are many gluten-free grains that are flaked, cracked or steel-cut to add a new dimension, mouthfeel and visual appeal to a baked product,” Ms. Klimczak said.

To handle the variety of texture needs across all bakery categories, PGP International, Woodland, CA, offers gluten-free flours in a wide range of granulations. Super fine granulations, for example, work well for pizza dough, a widening field for gluten-free, according to Ryan Olson, sales director, extruded and grain. The company also provides functionality with its blends of medium grain and sweet rice flours. To enhance the texture and mouthfeel of finished gluten-free baked goods, Mr. Olson suggested combining PGP’s rice flour with its dough strengthener.

Embracing diversity

To improve the flavor of gluten-free products and offer more variety in this area, bakers have become more interested in alternative grains and flours. “When I go to the bakery aisle, the varieties are almost endless, from multigrain and whole grain, to seeded, double protein and fiber, honey and low carb,” Ms. Klimczak said. “Creating variety using different combinations of flours or whole grains and seeds is a great way to spice things up in the gluten-free arena.”

Alternative grain flours, seeds and non-grain gluten-free flours can provide bakers with a new starting point. These options all offer bakers different functionalities and flavors, and Ms. Peta suggested these will be the beginning of the next generation of gluten-free innovation, with ancient grains such as millet and teff at the forefront.

Elizabeth Arndt, PhD, director of R&D, ConAgra Mills, Omaha, NE, expected to see a greater use of non-grain flours such as chickpea or lentil as well as ancient grains. Choosing the right flour or combination of flours can help bakers meet their targets for baked goods. For example, quinoa flour can make a softer gluten-free cookie with a shorter texture while sorghum is a good choice for bakers aiming for a crunchier cookie with more spread. “They all bring different flavor profiles, and their absorptions and spread factors are different,” Dr. Arndt said. “It depends on the product application, whether it’s a bread, muffin, cookie or roll. We try to take advantage of the differences in functionality among the different grains and grain ingredient formats.”

With their potential for multigrain formulations, ancient grains and seeds provide another boon of opportunity for bakers. Multigrain has long been a powerful word for consumers, who for better or for worse perceive such content to be healthier than whole grain or whole wheat alone. Multigrain varieties have been successful in ­conventional bread styles; now, that success is spilling into gluten-free. Cargill recently added a multigrain base to its gluten-free bread offerings.

Bakery categories with more difficult formulating challenges can also yield innovation opportunities, according to Ms. Klimczak. Bagels, artisan breads, pizza, buns, flatbreads and tortillas all are relatively new to the gluten-free market and have the most room for growth. “Some of those are the most challenging because of their heavy reliance on the functionality of gluten, but challenge can be opportunity,” she said.

To facilitate category-busting ­innovation, Cargill built flexibility into its gluten-free bases, according to Ms. Peta. For example, the company’s muffin base can be adapted to create a flavored quick bread, or the bread base can produce a brownie or pizza crust. This offers manufacturers easy solutions to increase their product portfolio and make processing changeovers.

Braving the nutrition frontier

Gluten-free products have drawn sharp criticism as lacking in nutritional content. Fortification of such foods gives bakers a way to tap into the global health trend affecting both conventional and specialty foods and, thus, snatch up consumers’ dollars. “Gluten-free consumers are generally label-readers and food researchers,” Ms. Klimczak said. “They will look for clean label, natural whole grains and seeds, and nutrition claims such as fiber, protein, calcium and vitamin D.”

“The next generation of gluten-free products will dovetail nicely with what’s happening in the rest of the industry,” Dr. Arndt said. “Developers are paying more attention to all the other ingredients added to their formulations, and that includes levels of sugar and salt and type of fat and functional ingredients, as well as how the ingredients ‘sound’ to the consumer.”

While clean-label formulating may not be inherently healthier, consumers equate labels they can read and understand with better-for-you ingredients. To accommodate this perception, Ingredion ­offers clean-label options for its bulk flour systems and texturizers, some of which can be named in bakers’ ingredient lists as simply “rice” or “tapioca flour.”

Shoppers’ interest in recognizable ingredients and nutrition has also opened bakers up to the idea of using more seeds, legumes and alternative grains that can provide whole grain nutrients, fiber and protein as well as interesting flavor profiles. Ms. Klimczak has seen an uptick in interest in making claims such as “all-natural,” “good source of fiber and protein” and call-out levels of whole grains in baked foods.

Much of the nutrition discussion focuses on whole grains because they are obvious choices for baked goods. “Whole grain is really a natural for adding nutrition to bread because it is a flour-based ingredient,” Dr. Arndt said. “In my mind, that’s No. 1 because we’re still not meeting the recommended dietary intake for whole grains.” Although first-­generation gluten-free products were based heavily on refined flour and starch combinations, Dr. Arndt expected whole grain to take a bigger piece of the market in the future.

“More bakers are asking for whole grain, and more are open to using some of these alternative ancient grains,” she said. Flours made from quinoa, amaranth, millet, sorghum or teff offer bakers not only more variety of flavors but also whole grain nutrition without gluten.

Bay State Milling blended multiple whole grains and functional ingredients to create a whole grain gluten-free flour that can be used across several applications. This blend simplifies gluten-free production for operators, provides whole grain nutrition and adds new flavor dimensions. “We discovered by blending whole grains, you can achieve new complex flavor profiles that highlight well-rounded flavors and minimize any polarizing flavors,” Ms. Klimczak noted. 

Even though it’s challenging, bakers need to keep an eye on fat, salt and sugar levels in their products as well, with regulatory and government agencies taking a hard look at average Americans’ daily fat, salt and sugar intake. “We’ve done a lot more of that work on the wheat side,” Dr. Arndt said. “Now, there needs to be more focus on the ­gluten-free side, too.” In addition to contributing to taste, all of these components serve technical purposes in baked foods, much like gluten. Removing these things completely can cause structural and production issues that can’t be ignored.

Ingredient suppliers’ research teams, such as that of Ingredion, will assist customers with finding answers to ever-present salt and sugar questions as these regulatory concerns make their way into gluten-free categories, Mr. O’Brien observed. “If bakers are looking to reduce fats or sugars, we can help with that while maintaining the texture they require,” he said. He noted that added ingredients can address many health concerns, including bone, digestive, immune health and blood sugar.

Fortification marks another frontier in nutrition for gluten-free foods by adding healthy attributes to previously nutritionally deficient products. While cutting sugar, fat and salt are all worthy goals, consumers prefer to see benefits added rather than negatives removed.

Currently, the most common add-ins for baked goods are fiber and protein, said Jennifer Williams, senior applications scientist, Penford Foods Ingredients, Centennial, CO. The company developed several starches and fibers to increase a gluten-free product’s fiber or protein content. Resistant starches and potato-based insoluble and soluble fibers can do the trick. Penford also offers a non-GMO white corn fiber that offers clean-label added fiber and works well in breads and muffins. For enriching snacks and nutritional bars with protein, Ms. Williams suggested a non-GMO white corn protein.

Whole grains can naturally fortify nutrient content. Quinoa, amaranth and teff contain more than 13% protein. Buckwheat can provide a healthy dose of fiber. These ancient grains add essential minerals such as calcium, iron and folate. Chia and flaxseed deliver protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Legume flours, which gluten-free formulators may pick up in the near future, have some of the largest percentages of fiber, around 20 to 30%, according to Ms. Klimczak.

Glanbia Nutritionals found that flax not only contributes to the nutritional profile of gluten-free products but also that its gum mucilage helps baked goods retain moisture, which improves texture and shelf life.

Despite being a small market, gluten-free is a rapidly expanding one and garnering a lot of high-profile shopper attention. After much trial and error, bakers met the initial need: Make gluten-free products. But consumer expectations are always changing, and bakers must keep up by going beyond simply baking without gluten. The new era is here, and it involves producing gluten-free alternatives that mimic conventional products. As bakers explore the future of gluten-free, they can turn to ancient grains, alternative flours and functional ingredients to keep up with consumer demand.