One thing you learn quickly about processing gluten-free items is they aren’t anything like conventional products. That’s what ingredient and formulating experts advise.

“Once you get into full production, it is important to remember that gluten-free foods cannot be thought of in the traditional way,” said Kurt Becker, principal development scientist, ConAgra Mills, Omaha, NE. “Be open to new ideas, don’t lose sight of what you are trying to achieve, and remember to engage your suppliers’ technical teams — if needed — to help you work through the process.”

Start to finish, these doughs and batters present challenges all their own, explained Colleen Zammer, director of product marketing, Bay State Milling Co., Quincy, MA. And these concerns extend to products after they reach the marketplace. “Gluten-free formulas usually require blends of functional ingredients for product performance,” she said. “Gluten-free ‘dough’ is often more like a viscous batter. Baking conditions usually require lower temperature and longer time. Shelf life is often shorter, and texture, nutrition and flavor are sometimes lacking.”

Water absorption, mixing times and speeds, dough handling, bake times and temperatures all shift in comparison with conventional items. “Making sure your equipment can handle these differences or finding a suitable co-packer is critical,” Ms. Zammer added.

Production lines are going to look different. “Often, the equipment you’ve worked with before won’t do the job with gluten-free that it does with standard formulations,” said Jeff Casper, R&D manager, Horizon Milling, Wayzata, MN. “You should expect to work with a new process setup.”

Bryan Scherer, director of R&D, Penford Food Ingredient Co., Centennial, CO, confirmed the adjustments involved. “Raw gluten-free products can have very different rheological characteristics than the full gluten counterpart,” he said. “This can result in the need for alternative mixing, handling and processing equipment. You cannot assume that a gluten-free product will run on your current manufacturing line.”

Manage mixing expectations

For one thing, the degree of hydration changes drastically, and bakers make mistakes by underestimating this factor, according to Mr. Casper. He and William  Atwell, PhD, retired Cargill researcher and consultant, Champlin, MN, recently wrote a handbook covering gluten-free formulation and processing methods, set for publication by Eagan Press, St. Paul, MN.

“Gluten-free bread falls between a batter and a dough,” Mr. Casper said. “It is very different on a rheological basis from standard doughs. And typically, it will be extruded rather than divided, even using depositors such as batters normally use. You will be dealing with a more sticky item, and cleanout programs will also have to adapt.”

Mixing, on the other hand, is deceptively simple: Wet out the ingredients, and don’t overmix. “You’ll find the dough development stage to be more mixing than kneading,” said Rajen Mehta, PhD, senior director, specialty ingredients, Grain Millers, Inc., Eugene, OR. Hydration develops the structure, but it also limits machining. “If you knead too much, you can destroy the structure, especially of the starches,” he cautioned. “Depending on the application, fiber allows fine tuning of structure, humectancy and lubrication effects.”

Bakers who normally use a two-speed mixing procedure (a short period at slow speed and a longer time at high speed) will need to reverse this pattern. “With gluten-free doughs, the slow mix is longer and the high speed shorter,” Dr. Mehta said. “Another thing, the total mix time goes down.”

After mixing, makeup needs to get done quickly. “Because of the level of hydration involved, you will have limited working time,” Mr. Casper observed. “These doughs stiffen quickly, but the bubbles are not as stable as when gluten is present. You’ll see uneven air pockets, created during depositing. Another problem is collapse during proofing or baking.”

Cookie bakers have it somewhat easier. Mr. Casper noted that such doughs can run on standard processing lines without too much trouble. Cakes and muffins act similarly.

Adapt to the plant floor

It’s one thing to make a good gluten-free product in the lab, but it’s something else altogether to bring it up to full-scale on the production line.

“Start with a gold standard bench-top version that meets all your needs before moving from bench to ­bakery,” advised Ning-Hong Li, food scientist, ConAgra Mills. “Once that’s ready, standard processes should be followed for scaling up including identifying equipment needs, critical quality control points and measurements.”

Corn flours have found a good home in many gluten-free products, but on the makeup line, their doughs will not act like those containing wheat. “Our [corn] material at 100% replacement for wheat in a formula will sheet entirely differently than a wheat ingredient,” explained Todd Giesfeldt, R&D mill product manager, Didion Milling, Johnson Creek, WI, and a former baker. Even when other cereal grains, starches and gums are added to create a good look-alike to conventional doughs, it still won’t sheet like wheat-based items. “It will leave a shorter texture, and the machine set-up will not be the same,” he said. “A lot of that goes back to the short texture. It just won’t stretch as far or as fast.”

Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, IL, bases its gluten-free functional flours on corn, tapioca and rice plus other ingredients. Dilek Uzunalioglu, PhD, the company’s senior associate, bakery and snack team leader, global applications, explained that one of its flours is best for reducing crumbliness, which is important in sweet goods, while the other is used in products requiring sheeting, dough elasticity and chewy texture. It provides smooth and chewy texture, as well as elasticity, and it reduces crumbliness.

In adapting gluten-free formulas to full-scale production, “the key is to understand the unique characteristics of the flour,” said Brook Carson, director of R&D, ADM Milling, Overland Park, KS. “For example, the hydration rate and capacity and the starch gelatinization temperature are different for sorghum compared to wheat flour, which may require formula and process modifications. Be creative, and focus on ingredient functionality.”

Certify the process

One of the first steps in moving into making gluten-free products is to make sure the manufacturing facility can safely produce such items without the risk of gluten contamination. Mr. Scherer recommended a thorough technical assessment of the site. “Review of the facility and protocols by an objective third party such as the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness is recommended before starting down the development path,” he said.

Consumers expect the product to be validated as gluten-free, and so must the process. Three organizations — the Gluten Intolerance Group’s Gluten-Free Certification Organization, the Celiac Sprue Association and the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness — currently certify products and companies as gluten-free.

Mr. Becker explained the need for such diligence. “Because even a small amount of gluten can cause symptoms for someone with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten-free foods must be produced on a dedicated line or on a standard line that is rigorously cleaned and certified gluten-free,” he said.

And then there’s sanitation. Ideally, equipment for making gluten-free products will never have “seen” gluten or anything containing gluten. Yet even the most meticulously gluten-free processing plant must still set operating procedures and sanitation practices to meet ­allergen-level protocols.

Gluten comes under regulations written into the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004. To be labeled gluten-free, a food must contain less than 20 ppm gluten, according to final regulations published by the Food and Drug Administration in August 2013.

The eye cannot detect amounts this small, yet new rapid testing methods can accurately determine gluten’s presence in as little as five minutes. A new test from Neogen, Lansing, MI, detects gliadin, an indicator of the presence of gluten, at levels as low as 5 ppm (10 ppm gluten). It uses the R5 gliadin ­antibody and was developed in cooperation with the University of Nebraska’s Food Allergy Research and Resource Program.

Look to the potential

If gluten-free processing is so difficult, why get involved? The market is hot, hot, hot. Sales doubled in the past five years and are expected to double again to $5.5 billion by 2015.

Suddenly, 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, NC, opened in 2004, and early in 2013, Europe’s major gluten-free bakery, Dr. Schar, started up a 50,000-sq-ft facility at Lyndhurst, NJ.

It’s not 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.

Early last year, the NPD Group reported nearly 30% of Americans indicate they want to cut down or eliminate gluten. The Gluten-Free Agency, a Toronto-based consulting group, estimates the total market could be as high as 44 million people in North America alone.

Those are all good reasons.