Increased awareness of Celiac disease and gluten intolerance, improved product quality and higher demand drives growth in gluten-free bakery products.
Sales of gluten-free foods are reportedly rising by 15 percent to 25 percent per year, prompted by an increase in awareness and diagnoses of celiac disease, gluten intolerance and gluten ataxia.
Gluten sensitivity and related illnesses are caused by an autoimmune response to the presence of gluten. The body's immune system produces antibodies in those individuals, much as it would in the presence of other threatening substances.
Celiac disease, which is hereditary, affects people differently. Some people may suffer severe damage to their small intestine, while others may be non-symptomatic. Although those with gluten ataxia may never experience the gastrointestinal distress associated with common gluten intolerance, they may experience neurological dysfunction, such as a loss of coordination. Regardless of whether a person is gluten intolerant or has been diagnosed with celiac disease, the recommended treatment is strict adherence to a gluten-free diet.
Fortunately, those on a gluten-free diet have far more to choose from today, as the breadth of gluten-free products rises dramatically.
Technically speaking, the term “gluten” refers only to the unique wheat protein composite of glutenin and gliadin, which creates the elastic, cohesive mass that gives dough its structure. Gluten is from the Triticum genera, which is part of the Triticeae tribe. Today, gluten is more commonly associated with other Triticeae genera from grass seeds that have similar proteins including rye and barley. Spelt, triticale and kamut, other cultivated wheat varieties, also cause gluten sensitivity and would be excluded from a gluten-free diet.
When gluten-free products initially appeared in the market, they were generally of poor quality, texture and flavor. Bakers have since become more adept at using the variety of gluten-free ingredients available from tapioca to rice to soy-based ingredients. Still, achieving the proper texture is difficult on certain types of products, such as breads and cookies, notes Michael Smulders, founder, Bakery on Main, Glastonbury, Conn. “Adjustments are product specific. It's a totally different kind of baking because you're not using the gluten structure of baking,” he adds.
Creating a texture similar to that of gluten-containing products is a challenge many bakers of gluten-free baked foods face. “Learning about different gluten-free flours and combinations is key to texture and taste,” says Lisa Albertson, gluten-free baker, Deerfields Bakery, Schaumburg, Ill. “Xanthan gum is critical as a binder in gluten-free baking. Adding more traditional binders, such as eggs or egg yolks, also can be helpful in creating a better crumb. The shelf life of gluten-free products is another challenge. We create formulas that are suitable for the freezer to ensure a longer product life.”
Although at one time, many gluten-free products were grouped in with egg-free and dairy-free products, many products are now improved in flavor and texture because they are made with dairy ingredients, such as butter, to satisfy a large market of gluten-sensitive consumers who only need to avoid gluten, notes Kurt Schmitt, president, Deerfields Bakery, who also is a fourth-generation baker.
Maintaining a gluten-free environment
Dealing with cross-contamination issues to ensure gluten-free product integrity is an issue that must be handled correctly, Smulders notes. Currently, the United States has no gluten-free standard; however, a ratified Codex Alimentarius standard governing European food industry regulations ushered in a recent ruling specifying that gluten-free foods must contain less than 20 ppm of gluten, effective 2012. A level of 20 ppm also is the proposed U.S. standard, which most U.S. manufacturers are using voluntarily, Smulders adds.
Baking gluten-free products means taking on the responsibility of designating a separate facility to prevent cross contamination from occurring. “Wheat flour is ever present in a normal bakery-just check your air filters and HVAC,” Schmitt says. Gluten-free baking is “a big financial commitment; ingredients are more expensive and it's not practical and can be unsafe to mix wheat and gluten-free baking, even with cleaning in between,” Albertson adds.
People have asked Smulders whether he operates a dedicated gluten-free facility. But, even if the bakery just makes gluten-free products, ingredients can still be contaminated, he notes. “You must have good GMPs that control allergens, good allergen control procedures and random sample testing of finished products. Raw materials have been found to be contaminated, so you must have a good monitoring and control system in place,” Smulders adds.
When monitoring incoming ingredients, the test method commonly used in the United States is reportedly biased for wheat gluten, and thus may be off by a factor of two or three from barley, Smulders notes. “Still, testing is imperative,” he says.
An evolving market
Some retailers are changing the way they market gluten-free products as demand increases. Surveys and conversations with customers indicate a strong preference for placing gluten-free foods in dedicated areas. In fact, an ease of shopping is the primary driver of where to shop, Smulders notes. Stores not placing gluten-free foods in dedicated sections are possibly losing business on other categories, such as meat and produce.
As sales of gluten-free products continue to climb, and as quality of flavor and texture improves, product diversity increases as well. While once limited to crumbly cookies and dry muffins, gluten-free baked foods now encompass everything from tortillas to brownies to coffeecake. Although perhaps a challenge for the baker, gluten-free products enable those suffering from celiac disease or gluten sensitivities to lead more normal lives.