The surveys and sales figures reveal consumers are becoming more aware of the gluten-free category. Now, consumers may begin looking deeper into an important question of concern: Is it healthy?

The answer may lie in how a company chooses specific gluten-free ingredients. Grain-based foods manufacturers may wish to add protein and fiber to their gluten-free products by including ancient grains like quinoa, using brown rice in place of white rice, and selecting oats, provided there’s no chance the oats have been cross-contaminated with gluten-containing grains.

According to an on-line survey from Packaged Facts released in February 2011, the U.S. market for gluten-free foods and beverages stood at $2.6 billion in 2010 after growing at a compound annual rate of 30% from 2006-10. Packaged Facts projects U.S. sales of gluten-free foods and beverages will exceed $5 billion by 2015.

According to the survey, the No. 1 motivation people have for buying gluten-free products is they think the products are healthier than their conventional counterparts.

Gluten-free growth is taking place in the snack category. Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands, earlier this year said gluten-free products represent nearly 10% of global new product snack launches, including 20% in the United States.

The nutritional qualities of gluten-free foods may be more debatable than the sales growth of the category.

“That American consumers spend billions annually on gluten-free products is newsworthy, but the jury is out on whether or not the consumers buying these products really need them,” The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., said in an Aug. 10 e-mailed newsletter. “In other words, we believe there is a whole lot of self-diagnosing going on out there. What we are witnessing in the consumer preoccupation with gluten-free is indicative of a larger cultural phenomenon in consumer self-diagnosis and treatment. Consumer self-diagnosis of perceived ailments and allergies has paved the way for billions of dollars in sales of products with ‘no/low’ formulations, as well as those offering enhanced or modified ingredient profiles.”

People with celiac disease should avoid gluten, which is found in such grains as wheat, rye and barley. Celiac disease, an autoimmune digestive disease, damages the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, Ambler, Pa. An estimated 3 million Americans have celiac disease, according to the foundation.

A study published in the September issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics cast doubt on the ability of gluten-free diets to provide health benefits to people without celiac disease. The study was written by Glenn A. Gaesser, a professor in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona State University in Phoenix and chairman of the Grain Foods Foundation scientific advisory board, and Siddhartha S. Angadi, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Nursing.

No definitive data support the use of gluten-free diets in autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and the American Academy of Pediatrics does not support the use of gluten-free diets as a primary treatment for people with ASD, according to the study.

Also, no published reports show that a gluten-free diet produces weight loss in people without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Several studies have shown some overweight people with celiac disease have gained weight while on a gluten-free diet.

“These reports indicate that for a significant percentage of overweight or obese patients with celiac disease, body weight may actually increase on a gluten-free diet,” the study said.

A gluten-free diet may be deficient in whole grains and fiber, and whole grain intake is associated inversely with body mass index, according to the study.

“A gluten-free diet can be a well-balanced diet if care is taken in choosing whole grain products, including more legumes, and selecting foods with lower energy density,” the study said.

Quinoa, an ancient grain, might be an option.

For example, Denver-based Udi’s Gluten Free Foods in September launched new gluten-free products at National Products Expo East in Baltimore. A muffin and a bagel both contain quinoa.

A study appearing on-line July 3 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition sought to determine whether 15 quinoa cultivars had celiac-toxic prolamin epitopes and whether the epitopes might trigger immune responses in people with celiac disease. The researchers from King’s College in London and Universidad Politecnia de Madrid in Spain found four cultivars had quantifiable concentrations of celiac-toxic epitopes, but they were below the maximum permitted for a gluten-free food.

ConAgra Mills, Omaha, includes quinoa in its ancient grains line along with amaranth, millet, sorghum and teff. The company has an Eagle Mills gluten-free, all-purpose, multigrain flour blend. A 30-oz serving of the blend has 15 grams of whole grain and 6 grams of fiber.

At Bay State Milling Co., the acquisition of T.J. Harkins Basic Commodity Brokers, Inc. and subsidiaries, which was announced in August, will improve the ability of the Quincy, Mass.-based company to offer ancient grains, said Colleen Zammer, director of product marketing for Bay State Milling. Based in Bolingbrook, Ill., T.J. Harkins supplies sesame and edible seeds, sweet spices, ancient grains, specialty grain flours and grain blends.

“Our goal is to incorporate more gluten-free whole grains,” Ms. Zammer said. “Ancient grains tend to be gluten-free. If you use a whole grain, particularly something like quinoa, you’re getting a lot of protein, fiber and minerals.”

Among the ancient grains, both amaranth and millet are grown domestically, she said. It is more difficult to find domestically grown teff.

Brown rice is an ingredient of choice in new gluten-free and dairy-free frozen pizzas from Bold Organics, New York.

“I chose to make the primary component brown rice flour because it provided the structure and crisping qualities that I needed,” said chef Eric Brenner, chief culinary officer for Bold Organics. “It also contains a very high amount of dietary fiber (second only to whole wheat flour), has higher levels of vitamin B, calcium and zinc because the rice husk is also ground into the flour, and because it is a complex carbohydrate that processes sugar slowly, it helps control metabolism and blood sugar levels, thereby satiating hunger for longer periods.”

The frozen pizzas also include potato starch, he said. The gluten-free and dairy-free frozen pizzas come in the four varieties of vegan cheese, veggie lovers, meat lovers and deluxe. They are found nationwide in more than 2,000 stores, including Whole Foods, Vitamin Cottage, Hannaford, Food Lion, Roundy’s Supermarkets and Dierbergs.

A study appearing in the September issue of the Journal of Cereal Science examined the use of rice bran in gluten-free food. Researchers from Chiang Mai University and King Mongkut’s University of Technology in Thailand as well as the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, Austria, added different fractions of rice bran that contained different amounts of protein and dietary fiber and different ratios of insoluble dietary fiber to soluble dietary fiber. The trials demonstrated adding rice bran, in particular when containing a high amount of soluble dietary fiber, produced better bread color, higher specific volume, softer crumb firmness and improved porosity profile. Sensory acceptance increased when selecting a rice bran source with high soluble dietary fiber content.

Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods, Inc., Milwaukie, Ore., turned to brown rice puffs and whole grain rolled oats for its new Gluten Free Muesli. It features 17 grams or more of whole grains per serving.

SunOpta Ingredients, Chelmsford, Mass., offers gluten-free oat fiber products under its Canadian Harvest line. The oat fibers differ by fiber content, fiber length, water and oil-holding capacity, and particle size. All the fibers are at least 93% fiber.

When working with oats in gluten-free formulations, companies should be aware of potential cross-contamination from gluten-free grains, according to Bob’s Red Mill. The company sources its gluten-free oats from specialized farms in an isolated region of Saskatchewan.

Other gluten-free options

For grain-based foods manufacturers interested in creating gluten-free products, here are some ingredient options:

American Key Food Products, Closter, N.J., offers King Lion premium cassava flour, which mimics the structure, texture and taste of numerous wheat-based products with a single ingredient. It eliminates the need for complex formulations of flours, starches and hydrocolloids. Applications include cookies, brownies, cakes, muffins, pancakes, tortillas, bread, buns and pizza crust.

The California Raisin Marketing Board, Fresno, Calif., has offered product prototypes that show how gluten-free formulations may involve raisins. An almond corn raisin scone has corn meal, almond meal, sorghum and tapioca starch. A raisin newton has oat flour and raisin paste. A cracker has oat flour, almond meal and raisin paste. A coconut raisin cookie has coconut flour, brown rice flour, potato starch and raisins. A brownie has brown rice flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, raisin juice concentrate and golden raisins.

Caremoli offers a CareNoGlu line of gluten-free ingredient premixes produced in the company’s facilities in Italy. Gluten-free CareSoyFlour is a defatted and micronized soy flour with low-fat content, high-fiber content and high-protein content. The company uses a low-temperature and solvent-free process in a dedicated and segregated facility in Ames, Iowa.

Grain Processing Corp., Muscatine, Iowa, offers Pure-Dent B700 unmodified corn starch and Inscosity B656 and Instant Pure-Cote B792 instant modified starches to improve the mouthfeel and extend the shelf life of gluten-free baked foods. Instant Pure-Cote B792 improves textural qualities while Inscosity B656 increases batter viscosity, aids in moisture retention and provides freeze-thaw stability. Pure-Dent B700 contributes bulk and maintains a clean flavor profile.

Ingredion, Westchester, Ill., at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition in Las Vegas in June had gluten-free pancakes made with Homecraft GF 10 co-processed gluten-free flour.

Minsa S.A. de C.V., which has a U.S office in Lubbock, Texas, offers SoulMaize corn flour. The company includes the corn flour in a gluten-free waffle cone mix along with rice flour, potato starch, pea fiber, sorbitol, maltodextrin, gelatin, guar gum, esters of fatty acid, salt, cellulose, potassium sorbate and calcium propionate. The mix has 12 months of shelf life and contains whole grain, fiber and calcium.

Penford Food Ingredients, Centennial, Colo., offers PenTechGF, a system for creating bread, muffins, pizza crust, cookies and cakes. Pre-gelatinized starches give the dough elasticity and the right amount of chewiness. Cook-up starches allow for a consistent crumb grain.

Watson, Inc., West Haven, Conn., offers GluteNone specialty mixes for muffins, coffee cakes, brownies, cupcakes, cakes, cookies, sweet goods and pancakes.