One out of every 133 Americans is coping with gluten intolerance or celiac disease — and still more have wheat allergies. Their purchasing power has made the gluten-free market the fastest-growing segment today, with sales soaring 18 per cent a year. In 2008, 987 gluten-free products were introduced in the US, according to Nutrition Business Journal and Packaged Facts. And all signs indicate this trend will continue.
A major supplier of gluten-free ingredients, National Starch, reports a marked increase in interest in its gluten-free line from product developers in 2008. "This usually translates into increased new-product introduction activity a year or two down the road," says Joe Lombardi, business manager, wholesome ingredients.
Even individuals without food sensitivities are turning to gluten-free foods because they believe they are healthier, and some early research suggests this might be true for individuals with certain health conditions.
A recent randomised study published in Arthritis Research & Therapy found that rheumatoid arthritis sufferers who adhered to a gluten-free vegan diet were better protected against heart attacks and stroke because they 'significantly' lowering their LDL and oxidized LDL levels.
Still, some consumers remain sceptical. It wasn't long ago that 'gluten free' was equated with 'cardboard' — in both taste and texture — so manufacturers have had their work cut out for them. Finding substitutes that taste and perform as well as the ingredients they replace has taken years to perfect. And their efforts are finally paying off.
The art of going gluten free
People with gluten sensitivity face a dizzying list of restrictions. Wheat, rye, barley, oats, millet and triticale all contain gluten, but so do less-obvious foods, such as conventional salad dressings, beer, candy, processed luncheon meats and soups. According to the Mayo Clinic, even items that touch the mouth can be problematic, such as toothpaste, lipstick, and medications and vitamins that use gluten as a binding agent.
The reason gluten is so ubiquitous is the same reason it has been a challenge to replace it: gluten plays a key role in providing structure to baked goods. During cooking, proteins in gluten create a submicroscopic network that traps gas bubbles and adds viscosity and elasticity. When the product is heated, the moisture evaporates and the gluten becomes rigid, setting texture and?structure.
Cereals and bread products usually contribute up to 50 per cent of fibre intake in Western countries, says Joseph O'Neill, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Beneo-Orafti in North America. Historically, these gluten-containing grains were replaced with refined ingredients such as white-rice flour, or starch from tapioca, corn or potato. Such substitutions left the products low in fibre, and high levels of fat and sugar were added to bind the ingredients and make the foods more palatable.
Beneo-Orafti promotes ingredients such as long-chain inulin and oligofructose, extracted from the chicory root, which can be used to boost fibre content as well as bring added prebiotic benefits for digestive health.
"Orafti inulin and oligofructose ingredients are the world's most researched prebiotics," O'Neill says. "Orafti has been proven to selectively nourish and stimulate beneficial bifidobacteria in the colon."
The company's OraftiSynergy1 is a unique composition of oligofructose and inulin that has been specifically formulated to improve digestive health in general, and bone health in particular.
National Starch offers a range of starches and flours used in gluten-free formulations, based on rice, tapioca and potato. But the company has worked hard to impart higher levels of functionality in their ingredients than the standard native or unmodified flours and starches.
"When we talk about added functionality we are talking about providing viscosity consistency, processing tolerance and moisture-management attributes," Lombardi says. "This leads to desired textural attributes, and shelf-life benefits in ambient, refrigerated and frozen conditions."
Meanwhile, Cargill has been tackling gluten-free challenges particular to baking. "Our patent-pending bases create gluten-free bakery products with measurably better sensory performance than existing products on the market," says the inventors of Cargill's gluten-free systems, Jodi Engleson, principal research scientist, and Bill Atwell, technical leader for bakery.
"Customers can begin with our bases and add flavours and inclusions to customize a product unique to them. It enables them to quickly enter a rapidly emerging, attractive space without major investments in product development."
The company has patents pending for a new batter system for muffins and cakes, and for new bread bases, both of which have scored 'measurably better' in sensory performance than leading gluten-free brands, the researchers say. Both debuted in the past six months.
Finished goods manufacturers are taking notice.
"Some of my favourite newer ingredients are the new rice starches and inulin," says Scott Mandell, founder, CEO and president of Enjoy Life Foods of Illinois. "They have played an important role in developing allergy-friendly foods by replacing functional ingredients that were taken out and improving shelf life and texture."
Founded in 2001, the Enjoy Life line now has 19 products that eliminate gluten as well as the eight most common food allergens: wheat, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, egg, soy, fish and shellfish.
"My favourite gluten-free ingredient is rice pasta," says Tabor Burke, founder, CEO and president of Allergy Friendly Foods, the maker of Allergaroo readymade meals for kids. "The rice pastas on the market now have come a long way from a few years ago. When I'm able to fool my own kids into believing the rice pasta is actually wheat, you know you've found the right one."
Within nine months of launching in 2008, Allergaroo is now selling its products in more than 9,000 stores in 43 states; Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico.
Potential for chia seeds
Some of the innovative ingredients now being used in gluten-free foods include amaranth; sorghum and millet; buckwheat; almonds and hazelnuts; flax; brown-rice flour; quinoa; and garbanzo, navy and fava beans.
Suppliers of chia ( Salvia hispanica L) believe this ancient Aztec oil seed is the next hot ingredient for gluten-free foods. Rich in calcium and fibre, chia seeds contain more omega-3 fatty acids than flaxseed and more protein than beans.
Wayne Coates, president of Chia Farms, began working with the seed 18 years ago as a researcher at the University of Arizona. Today, his company's growing fields in Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador make Chia Farms one of the largest suppliers, selling both whole seed and ground chia. Coates' website at www.eatchia.com is part of his company's commitment to client education.
"There is no question we are seeing a rise in interest in chia, as more people become aware they have wheat allergies," Coates says. "Chia has been certified by the Argentine Celiac Association as gluten free, and it is an excellent wheat substitute in products."
Three other major ingredients suppliers began carrying chia in 2008.
In April, Navitas Naturals began offering both whole seed and sprouted whole-seed powder varieties. The sprouted chia seed is available because the germination process prior to low-temp milling greatly increases nutrient content, bioavailability and absorption, says Wes Crain, vice president of sales. "All Navitas Naturals products are gluten free, and we have been soft marketing all of?them as gluten free," he says. "But we plan?to do more to cater to this segment in 2009."
In May, Proprietary Nutritionals of New Jersey launched Benexia, grown under Good Agricultural Practices and selected under GMP and HACCP international quality standards. It is available in bulk seed, sprouted seed, milled seed, flour and oil.
AHD International began offering chia seed in September, and this January added chia seed flour. Nuchia Foods also sells a Chia Seed Flour that is a blend of milled chia seeds and organic brown-rice flour, which can be a 1:1 replacement for wheat flour. Valensa International sells a supercritical CO2 extract of chia seed under the name Tresalbio. The company's ChiaMax ingredient, with a mild flavour, targets sports-nutrition bars, shakes and baked goods.
A branded chia ingredient new to the market is Salba; it is certified gluten free by the Gluten Intolerance Group. It is being used in whole-food bars, snack chips and granola cookies. A specially bred (non-GMO) chia seed that spent 15 years in development, Salba offers the highest-known plant-based source of omega-3s and fibre found in nature, says Mitch Propster, CEO of Core Naturals, the largest distributor of Salba in the US.
Gluten-free products do taste great!
Top 10 gluten-free ingredients
According to Scott Mandell, founder, CEO and president of Enjoy Life Foods
- Enjoy Life Foods semi-sweet chocolate?chips
- Enjoy Life Foods chocolate bars
- Sunflower butter
- Spectrum shortening
- Unsweetened applesauce
- Xanthan gum
- White and brown-rice flour
- Tapioca flour/starch
- Earth Balance Buttery Spread
Ten innovative gluten-free ingredients
University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center
- Calrose rice
- Peanut flour
- Potato flour, potato starch
- Rice, rice bran, rice flour
- Taro flour
When 'gluten free' isn't
In November, a Chicago Tribune investigation found that some gluten-free foods aren't what they claim to be. Testing at a university laboratory found that three Wellshire Kids gluten-free products contained between 116 and 2,200ppm of gluten. While a federal definition of gluten free has yet to be established, most experts agree gluten free should contain less than 20ppm.
The products were sold exclusively at Whole Foods groceries. After the report came out on Nov. 21, the company initially refused to remove them, saying it was the supplier's responsibility to ensure the foods were safe, the Tribune reported. But amid mounting pressure, the grocery pulled the products in late December.
Wellshire Farms is working to correct the problem, but admitted it makes identical 'gluten-free' products sold in other stores under the brand name Garrett County. Subsequent testing by the Tribune found that they too had gluten levels as high as 2,000ppm.
For some people, mistakes like these can be dangerous, or even deadly. An estimated 30,000 Americans require emergency-room treatment and 150 die each year from allergic reactions to food — and a large percentage are children, the Tribune reported.
Whole Foods has announced it will create a 'strict definition of gluten free' for products sold in its stores, along with monitoring.
But the dangers won't really go away until a national standard is developed. Advocacy groups cheered in January 2007 when the FDA issued a proposed definition for the labelling of gluten-free foods. The final rule was due by August 2008, but the FDA has not yet finished a safety assessment on gluten exposure in celiac disease.
As it stands right now, the FDA does not object to the use of the term 'gluten-free' provided it is 'truthful and not misleading,' a spokeswoman says.
New gluten-free product introductions, by category, 2001-06