Gluten-free hitting the mainstream? The Chicago Tribune named gluten-free one of the top ten buzzwords of 2008, and gluten-free products are among the top 10 fastest growing food categories, according to the Celiac Sprue Association. What does this mean for bakers? A lot of potential if you're up to the challenge that gluten-free products present.
Gluten, a protein, is found in wheat, barley, rye and oats. Wheat flour is the backbone of nearly all bakery products, so formulating without wheat is a big challenge. “My recommendation is to boldly go where bakers don't like to dare,” says Ed Dimmer, co-owner of Rheinlander Bakery, Arvada, Colo. Rheinlander Bakery is a traditional retail bakery that added a gluten-free line.
Dimmer's wife, Maro, was diagnosed with celiac disease five and a half years ago after undergoing cancer treatment. “Many celiacs don't know they're celiacs until they have either an environmental or emotional trigger to activate the intolerance. Once we discovered that, she insisted [the bakery] also be gluten-free, and the rest is history,” Dimmer says. Rheinlander Bakery's gluten-free product line mirrors its wheat-based line, with close to 180 gluten-free items available.
Maro Dimmer's experience is not unique. In 2004, the National Institutes of Health released statistics that showed at least 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease, about 3 million people. The University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research in Baltimore puts the number at one in 133 (2.2 million) Americans who suffer from the disease.
Many celiac sufferers go undiagnosed for years. “One woman came in and said, ‘Muffins always made me sick before, and yours don't,’” says Patti Furey Crane, herself gluten-intolerant and owner of the gluten-free Mariposa Baking Co. in Oakland, Calif. “She found out she was gluten-intolerant from eating our products and not getting sick.”
Awareness of gluten-intolerance is growing. Mariposa is a primarily wholesale bakery with a small bakery café that opened in 2004. “In the beginning, you might come across buyers where you would have to educate them about gluten-free. Now, everyone knows what gluten-free is,” Crane says. “So, doors are definitely open to people in the gluten-free market now. The demand is growing, and the gluten-free community is a pretty big one.”
For Dimmer, his bakery near Denver has a potential gluten-free customer base of about 30,000 out of the area's 3.5 million residents, he estimates. His gluten-free sales currently are about 20 percent of his bakery's sales. “It's what I would call an emerging market. If I were just gluten-free, I wouldn't be quite as fat as I am now, but since we also do the traditional baking, we are comfortable,” he says.
Holly Beach, owner of The Silly Yak Bakery (say it out loud; you'll get it) & Bread Barn in Madison, Wis., has had a slightly different experience with gluten-free products. “Our sales jumped up over 100 percent in one year. It's really growing, and it's amazing to me the number of people coming in that are newly diagnosed. Everyone knows someone who is celiac,” she says. Gluten-free products account for about 65 percent of her retail sales, but when her wholesale accounts are factored in, the number drops to about 50 percent.
Both Dimmer and Crane suggest moving slowly into the gluten-free market. “I think to start right now, it might behoove you to wholesale in products first. Then, once you see how the products go over, you can start going a bit on your own,” Dimmer says. “Test the waters a little to see if you can accommodate all the requirements within your shop.”
The requirements are stringent. Currently, the FDA has no regulation for gluten-free labeling on products, but a recommended proposal puts the acceptable amount of gluten at less than 20 ppm. In a wheat-based bakery, offering gluten-free products requires strict sanitation because cross-contamination is a serious issue.
“The requirements are below 20 ppm, but that means your ingredients can come in at 19 ppm and still meet requirements,” Dimmer says. “So, if you want to be very safe, you want to make sure you're operating on the most stringent of methods. Because if you're adding 1 or 2 ppm, there's an outside chance that you'll bring it above the 20 ppm.”
Rheinlander Bakery's gluten-free and wheat-based products are all manufactured in the same building, but they are not produced in the same part of the bakery. The bakery goes through a complete scrub down when switching to gluten-free production. The products are baked on separate shelves in the oven, and are mixed in a completely different area. Equipment, including pans, spatulas and scoops, are kept completely separate between the gluten-free and wheat production lines. The finished products also are stored in separate freezers.
The gluten-free ingredients are stored in the second story of the stock room and never come into contact with the wheat ingredients. Dimmer has even found himself wiping off ingredient bags before they enter the bakery, and not putting the ingredients into bins so that any contamination stays on the bags.
“It's a matter of taking due care. Good, clean protocol is key,” Dimmer says.
His staff also has to change their aprons and shirts when moving from wheat to gluten-free production. All employees must wash their hands twice when they come on shift. Once when they change clothes in the washroom and again when they enter the bakery's production or sales areas.
The Silly Yak Bakery produces gluten-free products two days a week, Tuesday and Saturday, with wheat products manufactured on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The bakery is closed on Sunday. The retail store has separate cases for the two lines of products, and only the gluten-free items are frozen, so Beach does not have to worry about cross-contamination in the freezer. The shelving for wheat products also has labels that clearly state that they are not gluten-free items.
“Our staff is well trained and red flags go up if a customer brings both a gluten-free product and a wheat product to the counter. We always ask if they realize some of the items aren't gluten-free,” Beach says. She offers about 30 different types of gluten-free breads as well as muffins, scones, cookies and cakes. “Right now, with the flour prices going up, the diversification has really saved me.”
A clean bakery is not the only source of concern for gluten-free baking. The other one is ingredients. Bakers are used to working with wheat flour, and alternative ingredients require special production consideration.
The combination of flours (Beach uses quinoa, amaranth, millet, teff and rice flours) can be touchier than wheat flours. Wheat is more forgiving, Beach says, and you can add more water or flour as needed, but with gluten-free flours, adding more water or flour really changes the chemistry of the formulation. The product also is more time-consuming to work with. The consistency is similar to mashed potatoes rather than dough that is easily shaped on a bench. “It just tends to be naughtier,” she says. “You can have more flops with it.”
New gluten-free ingredients are becoming available to bakers. “Six years ago, it was almost impossible to find much outside of rice, tapioca and sorghum. Amaranth was just emerging,” Dimmer says. “Now, there's quinoa, bitter quinoa, teff, finger millet; the number keeps growing as the awareness is there.”
When Dimmer first began formulating gluten-free products, he drew on his background of genetic engineering, and tried to draw out scientifically what he was doing. He would redevelop cell structures to see which sugar alcohols would emulsify with what and how the different combinations would work. “The reality is that ultimately, trial and error is among the best methods,” he says. “Once you learn your new ingredient alphabet, it's not that bad.”
He tries to balance out the grains he uses. For instance, quinoa has the most complete amino acid profile of all the grains available, teff is probably the most mineral nutrient dense ingredient, and amaranth and buckwheat have high protein content. He focuses on a multi-grain and complex carbohydrate approach when formulating products.
Mariposa's Crane has found success with organic brown rice flour, tapioca and potato starches and sweet rice flour. “Those are our four staple flours that we use in our baked goods,” she says. “I think every gluten-free company has the same mission; to have products that taste so good that everyone in the family can eat them.”
“Early on, when people did gluten-free, some of those products were really nasty. Now, you're finding they are really quite good. The competition is on,” Dimmer says.