Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition characterised by an inability to consume wheat protein, commonly known as gluten. A similar condition, known as non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, causes an individual’s body to reject gluten when ingested, resulting in fatigue, headaches and indigestion.
Coeliac and gluten sensitive individuals are forced to avoid food containing wheat protein, a difficult task considering the widespread presence of wheat products in diets of people all over the world. Nowhere is this limitation more evident than with bakery products. The use of wheat flour is a cornerstone of the bakery industry, providing flavour, texture and structure to everything from cupcakes to breads.
Gluten-sensitivity and coeliac disease only recently developed widespread awareness and are still being understood by researchers and the public alike. Preliminary research estimates global rates of celiac disease to be at one percent, with most cases concentrated in the West, as Eastern countries tend to consume more rice and wheat alternatives.
Coeliac disease is often mistaken for irritable bowel syndrome and experts agree that a large majority of cases currently remain undiagnosed. Depending on the country, studies suggest that the ratio of diagnosed to undiagnosed cases can be as high as 1:20.
As awareness of coeliac disease spreads, the incidences of diagnosed coeliac disease have increased dramatically, especially in western nations. In Canada alone, the number of cases quadrupled over the past 50 years.
US Department of Agriculture
More recently, the gluten-free diet has extended beyond coeliac and gluten sensitive individuals. The publication of the book Wheat Belly, by Dr William Davis, sparked a movement away from the consumption of wheat in general.
The book described modern genetically engineered wheat as addictive and unhealthy, causing unwanted weight gain and poor digestive health. It was well received and spent 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list before hitting number one in August 2012.
Research by the Hartman Group revealed that of the subjects purchasing gluten-free products, only five percent showed gluten intolerance, with the remaining 95 percent choosing a gluten-free regimen for reasons such as digestive health, nutritional value and weight loss.
The gluten-free food market originally catered to the coeliac and gluten-intolerant population and was available only in specialty stores and bakeries. These once niche market items have experienced a demand surplus with the rising popularity of the gluten-free diet.
This has garnered the attention of multinational food companies, such as Post Foods, Domino’s, Wendy’s, Arby’s and Burger King. The market is expected to grow to US$7 billion by 2015 in the US alone. As the market expands, gluten-free applications continue to diversify, with companies announcing everything from gluten-free beer to gluten-free pizza crust.
However, the majority of the market remains focused on bakery, where the extensive use of wheat flour creates a strong demand for alternate gluten-free formulations.
Gluten Free Formulation
Rachel Kramer Bussel, New York, US
Creating a gluten-free bakery formulation involves replacing any gluten-containing ingredients in a traditional formula, most notably wheat flour, but other ingredients such as oats and barley may also require substitution.
Flour is arguably the most widely used ingredient in bakery products, placing a considerable obstacle before food technologists pursuing gluten-free bakery formulas. The creation of a bakery formula without flour is akin to fishing without a rod, requiring food technologists to both create a tool to use and a method to master it.
This results in a challenging research and development process, as traditional rules and methods practiced in bakery food science are largely inapplicable. Depending on the item, it can take several years to replicate the flavour, texture, structure and shelf life that flour provides to traditional bakery products.
Several flours have been common substitutes in the industry, all providing varying results. An early substitute commonly used in gluten-free formulas was rice flour, due to its widespread availability. Products produced with rice flour tended to lack flavour and texture quality, resulting in a gritty, sandy texture.
As the gluten-free trend began to pick up, the industry saw flour substitutes move in a more organic, natural direction. These newer flours were typically derived from health foods like buckwheat, quinoa, sorghum, tapioca, soy, amaranth and pea. Today, a wide variety of flours are used, usually in combination with starches and gums to replicate the properties of wheat flour.
Three Major Components
Three factors are critical in the creation of a gluten-free formulation: taste, structure and shelf life. With consumers being accustomed to the flavour of wheat, many alternative flours can have an unfamiliar taste. It can be a great advantage to have flavouring expertise when creating a gluten-free product. This grants food technologists more control over flavour and aftertastes, allowing for more flexibility in the formulation.
Replicating the structural similarity of wheat flour presents the greatest challenge in the creation of a gluten-free formulation. Gluten serves two important structural functions in bakery products: it creates texture and elasticity in the mouthfeel of a product when consumed, and allows breads to rise by trapping air bubbles in the leavening process.
Andrea Nguyen, Los Angeles, US
A wheat flour substitute that does not retain air bubbles well will result in a dense, flat, inelastic product. The inclusion of pea flour and whey protein powder can assist in air retention and create gluten-free formulas that rise well when baked.
Shelf life presents another obstacle. Gluten-free formulations have a tendency to dry quickly. As a result, gluten-free bakery items typically have a greatly reduced shelf life in comparison to their gluten counterparts. This forces retailers and consumers to store products frozen, compromising freshness and texture. Sorghum and buckwheat flour help products retain moisture over time, allowing for increased shelf life.
Early gluten-free formulations centred on desserts, which presented less of a technical challenge. The sweeter flavours and ingredients associated with desserts lent food technicians greater flexibility, masking the unfamiliar taste of substitute flours.
Expertise acquired in confectionery development has more recently been applied to other product categories, with improvements being made in bread products like pitas, bagels and loaves. Replicating the texture and structure of a bread loaf demands greater control of the leavening process, as breads typically rise more than confectionery like muffins and cookies.
Early gluten-free loaves were relatively dense and tasteless, but with the discovery and mastery of new ingredients, the latest products have begun to resemble a traditional wheat loaf in both taste and texture.
Future of Gluten-Free
Initially, gluten-free bakery products were produced in local bakeries and sold in health food stores. Competition was low and as a result, so was the relative quality of early products.
The first gluten-free items were created and purchased out of necessity, consumed by individuals who suffered from coeliac disease. Without the use of flavouring or bakery formulation expertise, many of these early products were lacking in flavour and texture.
As the trend caught on, larger companies began to apply a more scientific approach to gluten-free products, greatly improving the palatability of gluten-free bakery goods and generating more competition. While the market is still relatively young, it is dominated by a few large competitors that create formulations produced on a large scale. These products are marketed to the general public and sold in retail stores.
The gluten-free bakery market is set to experience a massive influx of demand. The trend has already experienced dramatic growth, with the market doubling in size over the course of the last five years and projected to double again in three years.
This demand will come primarily from North America, specifically the US, although demand is expected to rise all over the world as awareness of the benefits of a gluten-free diet spread. While coeliac and gluten intolerant individuals will make up a portion of this increase, a large majority of growth will come from people interested in the general health benefits of going gluten-free.
New products will target this segment of the market, creating fresher and more nutritious loaves. Already, loaves that are high in fibre and protein have been released, and they are well received by consumers. The competitive landscape of the market is expected to even out, with more companies entering the market as confidence in the trend grows. Already, medium sized competitors have emerged, filling a gap between the small specialty bakeries and large brands.
The greatest challenges facing new entrants are production capacity and research and development expertise. It can be a challenge to find gluten-free bakeries large enough to produce the volume demanded by the biggest retailers. Additionally, given the trend’s youth, the research and development process involved in developing a good formulation can be time and resource intensive.
As the gluten-free trend continues to grow, the market will be defined by innovation, both within and outside the bakery sector. Few food trends in the past have shown the scale and strength that gluten-free has already displayed, and with its continued growth, consumers of a gluten-free diet can look forward to wider variety and improved quality in gluten-free products.