Expanding awareness of wheat intolerance brings a heyday for suppliers of alternative flours and starches as manufacturers create a flurry of better-tasting products. Patrick McGuigan tours the maturing gluten-free market
Pasta that fell apart when you cooked it, cakes that tasted of sweetened cardboard and bread that you could play ice hockey with: these used to be the sorts of choices gluten-intolerant consumers had to make.
But times have changed, and so have gluten-free offerings. As awareness of coeliac disease and food intolerances has increased, so have the quality, variety and availability of gluten-free products. In addition, the poor quality, heavy-handed packaging that characterised gluten-free foods has evolved, with the sector now boasting sleek, sophisticated brands that do not look out of place next to mainstream food products.
According to Euromonitor, the total US market for gluten-free packaged food products was worth around $180.3 million in 2004, up from $163.5 million the year before. Packaged Facts says the US market for baked goods, flour and pasta that are free from wheat, soy, gluten and other common allergens has doubled since 1999 to a total sales value of $336 million in 2003.
In Europe, Euromonitor estimates the German gluten-free packaged food market to be worth $532 million in 2004, up from $528 million in 2003. France notched up sales of $142.7 million last year, compared to around $129.6 million in 2003, while the UK saw the market reach $140.2 million, up from $135 million.
These figures suggest that the European market is further developed than its trans-Atlantic cousin, but the US is catching up quickly as awareness of food allergies increases. For example, research from the University of Maryland in 2003, which found that one in 133 Americans may have coeliac disease, was extensively covered by the media. In the UK, Coeliac UK says that around one in 100 people have the condition, a statistic that is mirrored in countries around Europe.
Gluten-free turns to taste
Gluten is the major protein found in wheat, but it is also present in rye, barley, buckwheat and to a lesser extent oats.
With the development of the US market, gluten-free products have matured into more complex brands. As Scott Mandell, MD, of Chicago-based allergen-free foods company Enjoy Life Foods, says: ?Our goal is to make foods that are as good as the real thing, so that people who don?t need to eat gluten-free might actually want to buy them.?
To reinforce this, Enjoy Life, which makes breads, cookies and cereals, will unveil better-quality packaging and new branding in April. ?We will be centring on the fact that the product tastes good, rather than being gluten-free,? says Mandell.
This growing confidence in the quality of gluten-free foods is mirrored by Nutricia, a Dutch company that supplies a range of gluten-free foods under the Glutafin and TruFree brands. ?Products are improving and the taste barrier is much less now,? says UK-based category manager Nicola Davies. ?For example, we have completely changed our biscuit range recently with improved recipes and processes.?
Like Enjoy Life, Nutricia has repackaged its entire range of sweet and savoury biscuits, crackers, pasta, pot meals, cake, flour and bread with upmarket black and green packs, featuring clearer labelling.
Retailers drive development
In the UK, Davies says the real turning point for the gluten-free category came when the supermarkets started taking it seriously. ?Things have changed dramatically since 2001 when Sainsbury?s brought in its Free From range. All the supermarkets now do gluten-free products. It has grown enormously,? she says.
It?s not just UK retailers who have embraced the category. In Switzerland, Migros introduced a range of 20 gluten-free products last year under the Glutafin brand from Nutricia, as well as from other manufacturers such as Proceli.
?Migros wanted to make shopping easier for?people who suffer from?coeliac disease because gluten-free products were only found in specialist shops,? says spokeswoman Monika Weibel. ?Now our customers can buy everything they need at Migros. The products are positioned together with the regular products and have a picture of some wheat that?is crossed?out.?
In the US, Whole Foods Market has opened a dedicated gluten-free bakery in October last year in North Carolina. The new 8,000-square-foot facility will produce 27 products available at more than 30 Whole Foods stores in the eastern US.
The growing demand for gluten-free foods is also prompting greater scientific research into improved formulations and new ingredients. In Ireland, researchers at the Dublin-based Teagasc National Food Centre have been working to develop gluten-free breads and biscuits using novel ingredients such as milk protein isolate, rice starch, inulin, xanthum gum and fish surimi (a minced protein paste).
Scientists from the National University of Ireland, Cork, have been working with counterparts in the US to develop gluten-free pizza bases and bread with sorghum — a grain commonly grown in Africa and India. ?We developed a bread recipe with 70 parts sorghum flour and 30 parts corn starch, plus the usual water, salt and yeast,? says Scott Bean from the US?s Agricultural Research Service, who worked on the project.
The experiment used nine different hybrids of food-grade sorghum and, after analysing the different breadcrumb structures, the scientists were able to identify the best sorghum varieties. ?Seeing differences among the hybrids is good news,? says Bean. ?It means there?s a real possibility that sorghum can be improved.?
In another ARS project, food technologist Ranjit Kadan has developed a new rice flour mix, which is significantly cheaper than others on the market. ?My ingredients dry mixture costs about $0.30 per loaf compared to $4-5 per loaf for commercial rice breads,? he says. ?The mixture, made from flours, bran and rice oil, combined with sugars, salt, yeast and carboxy methyl cellulose as a gum, can make rice bread comparable to wheat bread.?