“The huge demand in gluten-free right now is by people who do not have absolute allergies, but people who feel better eating less gluten products,” says Francine Schoenwetter, a supply expert with New Hope Natural Media, who has worked in all angles of the food industry. “More artisan, regional varieties of wheat and other grains could be a great point of entry [for ingredient suppliers].”
Millions of people believe they can’t eat gluten, a protein found in wheat. This takes a whole range of products off the table. Gluten is found in not only wheat, but related grains such as barley, rye, spelt, kamut and triticale. It even turns up in soy sauce, salad dressing, and some cooking extracts that use barley-based colorants.
But it isn’t just about the gluten. Standard wheat flours can leave something to be desired for health-minded consumers who aren't gluten-challenged—protein, fiber, and other micronutrients.
The National Institutes of Health argues that modern refined grains have had a notable impact on the development of chronic disease in the Asian Indian population. By correlation then, the opposite is presumed to be true: The consumption of ancient and traditional grains could benefit our collective health.
“Refined carbohydrates, such as white rice and white flour, are the mainstay of the modern Asian Indian diet, and may contribute to the rising incidence of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in this population,” the NIH explains in an abstract of its report, issued in August 2011.
“Prior to the 1950s, whole grains such as amaranth, barley, brown rice, millet, and sorghum were more commonly used in Asian Indian cooking. These grains and other non-Indian grains such as couscous, quinoa, and spelt are nutritionally advantageous and may be culturally acceptable carbohydrate substitutes for Asian Indians.”
What are some of the gluten-free grains that food manufacturers might turn to? Here are some good alternatives already on the market, as well as some new ideas you may have never heard of before:
1. Amaranth seed
Found in three sub-genera and about 70 species, amaranth seed is cultivated on a large scale in Mexico, Guatemala and Peru, and on a smaller scale in China, Nepal and India. It is easily harvested, grows well in arid environments and provides a good source of protein. Compared to other grains, it is rich in the amino acid lysine.
Despite the name, buckwheats are not related to wheat. Instead of being a cereal (family Poaceae), buckwheat is related to sorrels, knotweeds and rhubarb. Although it comes in many possible varieties, "common buckwheat" now dominates the scene, accounting for 90 percent of global production, most coming from China. Gluten-free, buckwheat is rich in amino acids, iron, zinc and selenium.
A grain similar to quinoa, cañahua is virtually unknown outside the high regions of Peru and Bolivia. The plant is easy to grow, resistant to frosts, salty soil and even insects. But it is laborious to harvest and process. Cañahua is being distributed in North America by Stern Ingredients of Chicago.
For now, it is only being used as a powder or flour made from the crushed, toasted grains. Functionally it is being used as a thickener or protein additive in smoothies, hot cereals and soups. Soon, you will find it appearing in bread and bar products. It is also suitable for energy drinks, drink supplements, and dietary supplements.
Cañahua is distinguished by its high protein content and its complete amino acid profile, as well as its high content of magnesium. It is also gluten-free and allergen-free. And in contrast to quinoa, cañahua does not have the protective saponin layer, making it easier to work with as an ingredient.
This little South American grain has become so popular, there are now supply shortages. Chia has the great advantage of being perfect for gluten-intolerant consumers, as well as having a high quantity of soluble fibers. It is the world's richest whole food source of omega-3s (as ALA), dietary fiber, calcium and antioxidants.
Chia's soluble fiber content makes it a particularly effective hunger-control mechanism, says Kantha Shelke, principal of food science and research firm Corvus Blue. “One of the biggest hurdles with new ingredients is that consumers want to see a tangible benefit that they can feel. You drink caffeine, theobromine or theophylline, and you feel energized.
Chia is an ingredient like that. When you eat it, you feel satisfied, and you won’t start to feel hungry again soon. This then relates to how you look. You eat less, your waistline goes down. Consumers want benefits they can actually see and feel.”
Salba, a subset of chia, is a proprietary strain of the seed grown in Peru. The marketers of this ingredient tout its uniformity (a consistent size and pale color yielding a more consistent nutritional profile) as compared to other varieties of the ingredient in which seeds can vary in color, size and nutritional content.
5. Einkorn Flour
This is a unique heritage grain being used by Jovial Foods. The Heritage Grain Conservancy offers a dozen or so ancient varieties of wheat seed, many of which they say are tolerable for those with gluten sensitivity. Einkorn is one of these varieties. Cereal chemists continue to urge caution since Eikorn's safety for celiac patients has not yet been firmly established.
Native to semi-arid regions of Asia and Africa, millets are a group of small-seeded grasses. There are multiple species; the four most widely cultivated are pearl, foxtail, proso and finger millets. India lays claim to being the top millet producer at 8.8 million tonnes in 2009. Nigeria followed a distant second by, at 4.8 million tonnes, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Rich in B vitamins, millets are great for people on a gluten-free diet. Because it contains no gluten, it cannot be used in raised breads—only flatbreads. The downside is, millet is predominantly starchy. The protein content is similar to wheat and maize (about 11 percent protein by weight.)
An annual grass native to Ethiopia, teff is rich in dietary fiber and iron. It provides a more modest amount of protein and calcium. Because of its sour taste, it is often fermented. In cooking, it can be used in a similar fashion to millet and quinoa. Teff falls under the larger category of millets.
8. Pea protein powder
Pea protein powder is perhaps the strongest non-animal, non-allergenic protein source. It is easily absorbable, non-GMO, and tolerated by both dairy- and gluten-sensitive individuals. It is a true protein powerhouse: One 30-gram scoop of pea powder normally has 28 grams of protein for a mere 130 calories.
Pea protein is a fairly new form of protein on the market, valued for its high digestibility, low allergic response and low price. It has a light, fluffy texture and a slightly sweet taste—an advantage to food formulators.
Many companies use pea powder as a supplement to other proteins, in particular rice protein; combined, they have a complimentary amino acid profile. When high concentrations of pea powder are mixed with small amounts of water, the pea protein can be formed into a semi-solid mixture that can be used as a jam or spread. This is a unique attribute that gives pea protein yet another advantage over whey.
Research published this year in Molecular Nutrition and Food Research found that rats fed pea protein for 28 days had markedly lower cholesterol and triglycerides than rats fed casein protein. Scientists believe pea protein’s ability to regulate fat-metabolizing genes in the liver may be the reason behind the benefits.
Pea protein supplier Roquette has published a white paper on the benefits of pea protein consumption in active adults. Its branded ingredient, Nutralys, was found to be a superior source of protein for athletes and active adults. Other suppliers include Nutri-Pea Limited of Canada, and Cosucra Group Warcoing SA of Belgium.
First introduced in the United States by food pioneers Steve Gorad and Don McKinley, the Peruvian and Bolivian seed is still riding its wave from several years ago when it was found to be a complete protein (it contains all essential amino acids). It is also notably rich in magnesium.
Quinoa’s superior nutritional profile (1 cup of cooked quinoa provides 5 grams fiber and 8 grams protein, plus significant folate, magnesium, calcium, B vitamins, and vitamin E) makes it a big player in the plant-based protein category. Pastas, breads, granola, and parboiled packets of the ancient grain are skyrocketing in popularity—especially as Celiac disease awareness increases.
Used in the meticulously blended Sequel Naturals Vega Sport Performance Protein Blend, SaviSeed is the trademark name of sacha inchi seeds (which Sequel Naturals also launched). While notable for their gargantuan dose of ALA omega-3s (they have 13 times more omega-3s than wild salmon per serving, with the caveat of the low conversion ratios of ALA to EPA and DHA), they also have ample amounts of highly digestible protein—8 grams per ounce.
Sacha inchi seeds have value in protein powder blend applications. They offer tryptophan (about 8 times more than a typical roasted turkey), an amino acid that helps promote nitrogen balance in adults and mental recovery—a major win in our strenuous lifestyles.