After years of withstanding ‘strange-tasting’ products having little resemblance to ‘the real thing,’ consumers are now getting the kinds of gluten-free foods they’re after, in a much more competitive market segment for bakers and snack food processors.

Lauren R. Hartman, Editor-in-Chief

An estimated three million people in the United States have a digestive disorder known as celiac disease and cannot tolerate grain protein known as gluten. These folks are unable to eat traditional breads, pizza crusts, cakes, cookies and many snacks without pain and bloating. In fact, celiac disease can also be fatal if left untreated.

When individuals with celiac disease eat such foods and others that contain gluten, their immune systems respond by damaging or destroying villi, the tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining the small intestines. Celiac disease is both a disease of malabsorption, which means nutrients normally absorbed by the body are not absorbed properly, and an abnormal immune reaction to gluten.

According to a fact sheet called, “Celiac Disease,” published by the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md., this averages to approximately one in 133 people in the United States who have celiac disease, as well as others who suffer from gluten intolerances. But things are changing for gluten-intolerant consumers. More and more gluten-free products are being formulated with better tastes and textures than ever before.

With consumer interest in gluten-free foods mounting because of the incidence of diagnosis and awareness of celiac disease and gluten intolerances, the roster of gluten-free foods and drink products has grown exponentially in the past five years. Brand leaders are cropping up in this gluten-free market, which was once a niche in health food stores.

Packaged Factsstates that the gluten-free market, which was valued in 2004 at $580 million, leaped to an average annual rate of 29% and by 2008 was worth a whopping $1.56 billion. This trend will no doubt continue this year. In fact, the market is one of the fastest growing food trends. With the only existing treatment for celiac today being a 100% gluten-free diet, there’s tremendous opportunity for the gluten-free food industry. By the end of 2010, the market was predicted to reach $2.8 billion.

Dedicated plant
One such improvement in the gluten-free arena is associated with Bloomfield Farms. It’s one of few companies in the United States to have opened a new plant that specializes solely in manufacturing gluten-free baking mixes. The new 15,000-sq.-ft. facility located in Bardstown, Ky., was designed so that celiac disease sufferers and their families have more baking options. The company says it will soon introduce new products to its gluten-free line, including a retail seasoned flour for use on poultry, meat, fish and vegetables. It’s also rolling out with a gluten-free corn dog batter as well as a gluten-free funnel cake.

“The gluten-free plant in Kentucky is one of few in the country,” says Sue Sutherland, Bloomfield Farms’ president. “We make sure our products are not contaminated with gluten-containing wheat, barley, rye or oats. Instead, we use rice flour, corn meal, potato starch and other gluten-free ingredients as grain bases.”

“Consumers are well informed when they purchase gluten-free products,” observes Michael Elder, plant manager at Bloomfield Farms. “They understand ingredients, allergens and procedures taken to provide products that are deemed gluten-free. Many consumers ask what ingredients we use in our gluten-free blends and they are very interested in how we make sure our products are not contaminated with gluten. Consumers want a product that doesn’t provide a gritty texture and that does not leave an aftertaste.”

Bloomfield Farms also operates a traditional wheat-based dry-food blending and packaging business, Sutherland explains. She and her husband, who own and operate nearby Blend Pak, a dry mix company about 10 miles from the plant that serves restaurants, foodservice distributors and meat processors, began hearing about the lack of options and high prices for gluten-free products and saw an opportunity to better serve that market. “With our experience in the food industry, we already knew how to make a product that looks appetizing and tastes wonderful,” she says.

Located about 40 miles southeast of Louisville and 50 miles southwest of Lexington, Bloomfield Farms sells nine mixes for all-purpose baking, brownies, cakes, cornbread, cookies, loaf bread, muffins, pizza dough, pancakes and waffles.

Bloomfield Farms also offers consumer-sized cartons of products such as Muffin Mix, Cornbread & Muffin Mix and Pancake & Waffle Mix. It sells products online through its website that range in quantity from 15-32 oz. and are priced from $3-4. Package sizes range from less than 1-to 2,000-lb. totes. The company also takes orders for batters, breading and coatings from commercial customers, including grocery stores, restaurants and manufacturers for the seafood, beef and poultry industries.

“The main challenge we face in producing these products is ensuring that all raw materials that we use from suppliers are not contaminated by the presence of wheat or gluten,” says Elder. “Our raw ingredients are tested for gluten when they arrive at our facility. The second step is testing all of our products once they are blended and packaged for traces of gluten. We use Elisa test strips that can detect gluten at <10ppm (parts per million). The last step we take is informing our distribution channels of the dangers of storing gluten-free products and gluten-containing products in the same area of their warehouses. Keeping these products separate ensures that no gluten-containing product will contaminate the packaging of gluten-free products if there was an accident or products being damaged that spill on the gluten-free products.”

Mary Schluckebier, executive director of the Celiac Sprue Association (CSA), an Omaha, Neb.-based non-profit organization dedicated to helping individuals with celiac disease, says, “We’re pleased that Bloomfield Farms offers so many gluten-free products to people who need them. The plant has met all the requirements for our recognition seal program, so buyers can be confident in their purchases.”

The CSA seal signifies a company bearing it has passed a rigorous CSA review of ingredients and their sources of the manufacturing facility to assure allergen control, sanitation plans, best practices, inspection of packaging materials and testing by the University of Nebraska Food Allergy and Resource program laboratory to verify the absence of allergens.

Bit of honey does the trick
The National Honey Board (NHB), Firestone, Colo., recently conducted a question/answer interview with Rudi’s Gluten Free Bakery, Boulder, Colo., in which Rudi’s discusses the challenges of gluten-free formulations and the benefits of honey. Rudi’s indicated that one of the biggest challenges it had when developing its new line of gluten-free breads was producing great tasting products. Rudi’s also had to overcome the challenges with taste.

Doug Radi, vice president of marketing at Rudi’s, says the company sampled nearly every gluten-free bread on the market before it set out to create its own version. The bakery quickly discovered that it was nearly impossible to find gluten-free bread that tasted good straight from the package. “Similarly, it was challenging to find gluten-free bread with a texture that kept the bread from crumbling when used to make a sandwich, and that provided nutritional content close to that of regular bread,” says Radi.

Rudi’s, which also makes organic breads that contain gluten, worked for almost two years with gluten-free experts to create gluten-free breads using only natural ingredients that taste terrific right from the package and that have a texture similar to regular bread. After plenty of trial and error-the company tested more than 100 formulas-Rudi’s finally landed on a recipe that it believed to taste, look and feel like “regular” bread. “Sticking to our heritage, all of our gluten-free breads are made with only the highest quality, all-natural ingredients,” Radi says.

The line of gluten-free breads comes in three varieties-Original, Multigrain and Cinnamon Raisin. One ingredient Rudi’s says it found helpful was honey. “The use of honey in Rudi’s gluten-free breads serves two key purposes,” Radi adds. “First, honey is a great way to add sweetness to a product while staying true to an all-natural heritage. Secondly, honey helps with product moisture, giving our bread that soft, moist delicious texture that makes it more like real bread.”

NHB agrees that one of the most significant trends in the baking industry is the growth of gluten-free bakery foods. “But producing a gluten-free bread that tastes good is a challenge, especially if you’re not using artificial ingredients, flavors or preservatives. Many commercial bakeries are overcoming this challenge by using honey,” says Radi.

For Rudi’s, honey helps provide a way to add sweetness to products while staying true to an all-natural heritage, and it helps with product moisture, giving bread a softer, moist, delicious texture that makes it more like “real” bread.

“As a pioneer in the baking industry with a long tradition of innovation, we’re excited to create delicious gluten-free bread and baked goods that allow those who suffer from celiac disease and gluten intolerances a healthy, brighter outlook by letting them truly enjoy bread again,” Radi sums up. “We want to help our customers feel like they don’t have to give anything up to go gluten-free.”

Recipes from California
The California Raisin Marketing Board (CRMB), Fresno, Calif., which offers several recipes and other consumer materials for the gluten-free market, says that raisin paste and raisin juices can help improve the taste of gluten-free products. Raisin juice in formulations can help put inulin (fiber) into products. Like some pectins and fructooligosaccharides, inulin is said to be a preferred food for the lactobacilli in the intestine and can improve the balance of friendly bacteria in the bowel.

“Consumers are asking for good taste and mouthfeel, which are still key to the success of a gluten-free product,” says Rick O’Fallon, director of marketing for the CRMB. “The California Raisin Marketing Board is a key player in the gluten-free market, but not with product introductions,” he explains. “Our role is one of education to healthcare professionals, bakers, formulators and consumers. Bakers can better provide gluten-free products by using the research and input from suppliers for guidance. The natural sweetness of California raisins (being 70% fructose and glucose) is the primary reason that gluten-free products with raisins have a very palatable taste.”

O’Fallon says that in celiac patients, levels of harmful gut bacteria such as bacteroides, clostridium, and staphycoloccus [can be] elevated, and the levels of beneficial bacteria such as bifidobacteria are lowered. Inulin fiber, which is found in foods such as California raisins, can help promote the growth of beneficial bacteria as well as inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria.

“Celiac is becoming much easier to diagnose and consumers are becoming more aware of the issue,” he says. “Celiacs suffer from inflammation due to oxidative stress, and they can also become anemic due to low levels of iron. Antioxidant-rich foods help those conditions, so look for heavy antioxidant activity in gluten-free foods. The efforts of such TV personalities and food writers as Carol Kicinski [a professional recipe writer and TV chef], and the efforts of Alice Bast, president of National Foundation of Celiac Awareness are bringing this condition to the forefront. The bread formulations of Craig Ponsford [former chairman of The Guild and owner of Ponsford’s Place] and other bakers will be the answers for celiac consumers.”

Finding the right ancient grains that exhibit the same or similar finished product characteristics as wheat flour is probably the most difficult task for gluten-free producers, adds Larry Blagg, senior vice president of marketing at the CRMB. “The good news is that California raisins, raisin paste and raisin juice concentrate call all be used with these ancient grains to produce tasty breads, pastries, scones, biscuits, crackers and cookies.”

The CRMB sees the gluten-free market growing even more in the next five to 10 years. “It will continue to grow and most likely represent half of the products on today’s shelf,” O’Fallon notes. “Changes we foresee occurring in the future with gluten-free foods include more availability, better taste and formulations with new and exciting products. Product expansion will likely go beyond breads to cakes, muffins and even a gluten-free trail mix.”

Gum Technology is also working on a wide range of formulas for gluten-free products. “Many of them are still in the trial stage, but we have had great success using ourCoyote Brand GumPleteSXG-GF-205 in gluten-free baked products,” says Janelle Wilt, marketing director for the Tuscon, Ariz., company. “This blend utilizes the unique synergistic effect of gums and starches to provide products with great texture. In gluten-free muffins, it provides suspension, helps to stabilize the emulsion and the cell structure during baking.Coyote Brand GumPleteSXG-GF-205 also improves moisture retention.”

Wilt says the main challenge Gum Technology faces in the gluten-free arena is creating a cost-effective product that excludes gluten but still looks, tastes and feels good. “Ideally, we want a product that has good texture and flavor but also is affordable. By utilizing a starch gum blend such asCoyote Brand GumPleteSXG-GF-205, the challenge can easily be met. The blend can be used at much lower levels than starch alone or gums alone,” she says.

On the processing side
While gluten-free produces are difficult to formulate, they can be just as tricky to process on conventional equipment. Gluten-free batters, in general, can be viscous and very sticky, which precludes dividing them with typical volumetric dividers such as ram and shear dividers.

“Piston fillers can handle some of the thinnest gluten-free dough, but most gluten-free dough is too viscous to be accurately deposited by a piston filler,” points out John McIsaac, vice president, strategic business development at Reiser, based in Canton, Mass. “The Vemag divider is able to overcome both of these hurdles and can handle viscous and sticky batters,” he says. “The Vemag’s use of vacuum and gentle pumping meter gluten-free dough precisely and with no damage. Many early gluten-free producers adopted the Vemag years ago.”

Reiser developed attachments for the Vemag for precise portioning and placement, as well as systems for single outlet production as well as the capacity to fill multiple pans and strap pans simultaneously.
Products containing gluten tend to have more structure and ability to hold their shape, McIsaac says. “Gluten-free products tend to flow more. Therefore, it’s very important to get gluten-free products onto and into the pans they will bake in.”

Companies are expanding research and development on gluten-free products to improve overall quality and make products that are acceptable to all consumers, with or without celiac disease. Reiser’s bakery customers say they are trying to eliminate special shopping trips for consumers.

“In the beginning, gluten-free products were not developed to taste great, but simply to serve a purpose,” McIsaac continues. “That era has ended. Taste, quality, appearance and texture have taken over. Gluten-free icons and logos are popping up on all types of packages and menus. We think that more innovative products are on the way, and the Vemag has proven itself to handle the challenges of the future of gluten-free.”

From a machinery producer’s viewpoint, McIsaac believes that the gluten-free market seems to be a durable category. “We have sold machines into this market for several years and still have strong continued interest. Our customers who produce the products tell us more of their customers are ‘mainstream,’ and believe there are health benefits to a gluten-free or gluten-reduced lifestyle.”

More gluten-free technology
Grain Processing Corporation (GPC), Muscatine, Iowa, found a combination of corn starches, both native and modified, that greatly improve the eating quality of gluten-free baked goods. Specifically, PURE-DENT B700 unmodified corn starch, along with INSCOSITY B656 and INSTANT PURE-COTE B792 instant modified starches, which can improve mouthfeel and extend shelf life.

INSTANT PURE-COTE B792 improves textural qualities while INSCOSITY B656 increases batter viscosity, aids in moisture retention and provides freeze-thaw stability. B700 contributes to bulk and binds moisture.

The line of starches offers a clean flavor and leaves little to no powdery mouthfeel, reports Kelly Belknap, associate scientist at GPC. “Today’s consumers are looking for products that taste great and that can be enjoyed by the whole household, not just specifically for those that have celiac disease,” she says. “We introduced a system where different starches are recommended based upon the desired application.”
Belknap says that without the structure gluten provides, dough handling can be a delicate process. “Sometimes gluten-free dough becomes very sticky and is difficult to work with. Starches help to improve dough handling by binding moisture.”

The nutrition factor
With the rapid growth of gluten-free items appearing on menus in chain restaurants and being added to grocery store shelves, the market may continue to grow, Belknap adds, “especially when you consider the number of people who don’t have celiac, but are interested in gluten-free foods because of a different reason. I feel the quality of gluten-free foods will only continue to get better. The gluten-free market is most likely driven by more than just patients with celiac disease, though less than 1% of the population has been diagnosed,” she says. “An entire household may switch to purchasing all gluten-free foods to accommodate the one family member that does have celiac disease.”

But that can be a problem, as many gluten-free foods are lacking in nutrition. “Most gluten-free formulations don’t include whole grains and are low in fiber, so I see an opportunity for formulators to add fiber as well as whole grains,” Belknap points out.

Formulating gluten-free will most likely lead to an increase in ingredient costs, she believes. “But consumers who seek gluten-free will most likely be willing to pay a premium for those items.”
Elder agrees with this assessment: “The cost differential between producing gluten-free products and regular foods and ingredients is relevant. The ingredients needed to make a gluten-free mix can be more expensive and the bases of these mixes are more expensive. The difference in pricing is due to wheat flour (which is the base of most gluten-containing products) being a commodity that is cheap and supply is prominent.”

Functional challenges
Bill Atwell, research fellow and technical leader for Cargill Bakery, Minneapolis, says that gluten is more functional in some baked products than in others. “Utilizing Cargill’s broad scientific knowledge and application and ingredient expertise, we are able to work with customers to solve formulation challenges with our patent-pending technology.”

Cargill’s gluten-free baking bases are furthering the company’s already broad platform of gluten-free technology. “Our gluten-free bases are customizable, based on the food manufacturer’s requirements,” he says. “Cargill’s technology, ingredients and application expertise help our customers deliver superior products with the taste and texture the gluten-free consumer is looking for.”

Cargill provides gluten-free bases for multiple applications such as cookies, brownies, pancakes, cakes, muffins, breads and pizza crusts. Atwell says that while many gluten-free products don’t meet consumers’ taste or texture expectations, Cargill’s bakery customers are looking to produce gluten-free products that deliver rich taste experiences that are more like traditional bakery products. “Cargill’s patent-pending gluten-free baking bases replace gluten with ingredient systems, which can shorten the development curve and deliver an authentic, satisfying taste, light and airy volume and a soft, moist texture,” Atwell adds. “These customizable bases can be utilized to meet customer needs around taste profiles and customer taste expectations.”

In fact, Cargill’s gluten-free products are certified gluten-free, he says. “I recommend that anyone who is looking to get into the gluten-free marketplace work with a gluten-free certification agency like the Gluten Free Certification Organization. In order to produce such products, we recommend compliance with the gluten-free certification standards.”

The gluten-free category is one of the fastest growing trends in bakery and it continues to gain momentum with an increased diagnosis of celiac disease and a focus on allergies, says Kyle Marinkovich, marketing manager at Cargill Bakery. “We anticipate continued growth, and see this [category] as a significant opportunity for our customers and ourselves in the future.”

Marinkovich sees many changes taking place in the future with regard to gluten-free foods. “Product quality will get better, there will be new flavors, more products/proliferations of successful products, increased health and wellness benefits, including fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and the products will be more readily available in places like in-store bakeries and foodservice.”

The secret in sorghum
Adding starch to sorghum dough can improve certain negative characteristics of gluten-free sorghum bread, says Virgil Smail, executive director of United Sorghum Checkoff, Lubbock, Texas. “Sorghum is a well known food grain in many parts of the world,” he says. “In the United States, sorghum is not well known as a food grain.”

To expand the understanding of how to use sorghum in baking and other food dishes, the United Sorghum Checkoff; The Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board, Lincoln, Neb.; Texas A&M University, College State, Texas; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington D.C., have all been developing formulas and recipes for many gluten-free and whole grain products. “Sorghum makes an excellent, neutral-flavored whole grain flour that can be light tan or dark depending on the type of sorghum milled,” Smail says. “There are very few whole grain flours for gluten-free baked products. Also, the darker sorghum flour has high antioxidants and polyphenolics. Some hybrids have levels of antioxidants approaching chocolate. So sorghum offers many of the missing nutrients and benefits of a whole grain diet to a gluten-free diet.”

Smail says that no other starches need to be added to a gluten-free sorghum recipe, but they can be used if desired. “Sorghum flour can be milled to varying degrees to mimic performance of other starches,” he says. “Because of the neutral to slightly nutty flavor of sorghum flour, we haven’t been adding grains for taste. Sorghum tastes much like wheat flour when included in gluten-free formulas. It offers a slightly less ‘whole grain’ taste than whole grain wheat, but the flavor is similar.”

Many consumers of gluten-free diets are beginning to realize they are missing out on the benefits of a whole grain diet, including insoluble fibers, antioxidants and polyphenolic and prebiotic fiber benefits, Smail adds.

“Many gluten-free products are based on rice flour, which is not a whole grain. Sorghum solves the problem of offering whole grain gluten-free products with a neutral flavor. Whole grain sorghum goes very well into all batter-based baked products like muffins, cakes, pancakes, etc.”

In addition, sorghum isn’t much of a challenge to work with when developing gluten-free recipes. “It really has no technical hurdles,” Smail points out. “For every new application, formulation work is necessary to optimize for flavor, texture, shelf life and processing. The largest hurdle most bakers must overcome is to find a gluten-free bakery that can manufacture for them in a wheat-free environment. Most existing bakeries have too much wheat flour contamination to produce a gluten-free product on existing lines.”

In the future, Smail sees a strong focus on healthy products, including whole grain, nutrition bars, breakfast products and baked sweet goods that will be desired by celiac sufferers. And the cost won’t be as painful as with other ingredients. “The cost difference between whole grain sorghum flour and whole grain wheat flour is very slight,” he says. “We expect every mainstream bakery to launch gluten-free products under their existing labels. The largest constraint to accomplishing this is the lack of gluten-free bakeries. But a stabilized market will help companies make the investment to build more bakeries for gluten-free applications.”

Likewise, ADM Millings’s Harvest Pearl white sorghum flour and white whole grain sorghum flour have a neutral flavor and work well as the primary flour choice in gluten-free products, reports Brook Carson, technical product manager at ADM, Overland Park, Kan. “By using a base ingredient with such a neutral taste formulating the rest of the system is much easier,” Carson says. “We have worked hard to create a flour product that’s economical but also consists of a fine granulation to contribute to an acceptable mouthfeel in the finished product.”

Carson says that producing some gluten-free products, such as cakes, cookies and pancakes can be done with the same techniques as those for non-gluten-free, but gluten-free breads prove to be more difficult. “The bread dough has a very different consistency compared to a traditional dough so different processing systems and methods are required,” she says.

Bakers and ingredient providers will continue to develop these products and improve the quality. “The gluten-free market will continue to grow, though maybe not as rapidly as it has over the last couple of years,” she relates. “The celiac community will continue to demand high-quality products. As more individuals are diagnosed with celiac disease, more families will attempt to embrace a gluten-free diet. Other individuals, who have not been diagnosed with celiac disease will continue to ‘try out’ a gluten-free diet to cure a wide variety of ailments. Gluten-free foods will continue to improve in quality. As the market becomes more competitive, the products will have to improve to stay on the shelf.

*Photo courtesy of Gum Technology