The gluten-free category continues to grow as a result of new purchase occasions and expanding audiences.

Despite slight decreases since its peak in 2021, gluten-free remains the top positioning for new product development in the North American bakery space, according to Innova Market Insights. While initially targeted at those with celiac disease, the market has proven to be much more inclusive.

“Those who choose gluten-free foods often perceive them to be healthier than their traditional gluten-containing alternatives,” said Tiffany Walker, bakery category leader, Cargill, Minneapolis. “It’s this group of consumers who are largely driving the continued interest in the gluten-free space.”

Research from Ardent Mills, Denver, found younger demographics, particularly those in the 18-24 age range, are driving gluten-free eating by choice, rather than medical need. Taste runs paramount in the decision process with 76% of consumers claiming it to be very important, followed by texture at 52%. 51% consider the inclusion of easily recognizable ingredients in gluten-free products an important factor.

“Consumers continue to seek solutions that match their personal health values and preferences – this can mean functional foods, foods that taste good but also do good,” said Matthew Schueller, director of marketing insights and analytics, Ardent Mills.

Heightened awareness of food allergies and a rise in food sensitivities also benefits the category. Individuals with celiac disease often have another allergy or form of inflammation. An estimated 20 million Americans are gluten intolerant. Women, typically the primary shopper, are more likely to be diagnosed with celiac disease, often between the ages of 40-60. The disease is also becoming prevalent in children.

Whole households may also choose to avoid gluten because of the sensitivities or allergies of one or more individuals to streamline meal preparation and grocery shopping. In addition to being a solution for an entire household, gluten free is also becoming a hallmark of thoughtful entertaining, according to Cathy Wisloski, manager insights and customer experience, Dawn Foods, Jackson, Mich.

“Instead of a niche diet for one household member, gluten free becomes a solution for the entire family,” she continued. “This will multiply sales and drive demand for larger pack sizes.”

Formulation hurdles

Most consumers may not be food technologists, but most know when a product doesn’t hit the right sensory notes. Flour’s distinct flavor profile and texture elements are a lynchpin in bakery formulations. Gluten plays a critical role in providing structure, texture, water-holding and other attributes. While there is no single ingredient replacement for all the functions of gluten, certain ingredients can be relied on to provide some of these important attributes, but the right combination must also deliver on taste and texture.

Successful formulation begins with an understanding of the physical, chemical, functional and sensory properties of the individual ingredients used in a specific application. Leavened bakery products such as cakes, muffins and bread which exclude wheat flour from the formula lack gliadin and glutenin proteins, which are responsible for providing structure, volume and texture.

Bread remains the hardest to replicate in a gluten-free version. This is because bread is highly dependent on structure and function to trap gases and relies on structural benefits to maintain the shape of the loaf, but setting ingredients can provide structure to gluten-free products.

“Expanding options in the flour and protein spaces are helping to provide more nutrition and structural support, complementing the starches and other ingredients in gluten-free formulations that do the heavy lifting,” said Aaron Reed, senior food technologist, Cargill.

As companies continue to invest in and advance packaging and formulations, they are creating opportunities for more gluten-free products such as pizza with more elevated offerings to be stocked outside of the freezer and on more traditional bakery shelves, according to Matt Goldstein, R&D scientist, Ardent Mills.

To support customers looking to capitalize on these evolutions, Ardent Mills developed a gluten-free 1-to-1 all-purpose flour blend and a gluten-free pizza mix. Both offerings contain a combination of alternative grains and other functional ingredients for an easy substitution for traditional wheat flour. The AP flour blend can be incorporated into cookies, muffins, cakes, crackers, breads and pizza crust with minimal textural changes.

Looking for alternatives

Ardent Mills’ research found consumers don’t necessarily expect baked goods containing alternative grains and pulses to exactly match wheat-based baked goods, but they do expect these products to taste good and to be of high quality.

“Within the gluten-free bakery sphere, alternative and emerging grains are rapidly growing in popularity since they are able to help provide the taste, texture and satisfaction of traditional bakery items, without gluten,” said Lindsey Morgan, senior director of product market and innovation, Ardent Mills.

European-based Dr. Schär,  which has US offices in Lyndhurst, N.J., offers a range of gluten-free products to the U.S. market. Nutritionists and researchers in the Dr. Schär R&D Center, Triste, Italy, have a goal of using diet as an integral part of treating celiac disease and allergy sensitivities. Its commitment to creating products that are effective, nutritionally balanced and tasty led the company to its Re-Cereal project with trials of oats, sorghum and buckwheat, gluten-free minor crops.

While still small players in the gluten-free flour lineup, ancient grains and gluten-free minor crops offer great formulating potential. The stronger flavors of these grains often provide a delicious accompaniment to savory applications but may prove too strong for sweet applications. Ardent Mills anticipates the next frontier of ancient and emerging grains to include teff, amaranth, buckwheat and millet, with buckwheat showing the strongest growth. The company is also seeing increased interest in millet and sorghum following the naming of 2023 as the Year of Millets by the United Nations. Millets provide added protein and fiber.

Awareness rising

As taste and texture profiles continue to improve, gluten-free products are more likely to benefit from word of mouth recommendations. Incomes $100k+ have the highest awareness of gluten-free baked goods, and African American and Hispanic shoppers like gluten-free bakery items the most, indexing well above the general population, according to Datassential.

Currently, the audience of gluten-free purchasing skews to Gen X and Boomers, who account for the majority of gluten-free bakery sales (65%), according to Circana, Chicago. Because gluten-free products typically have a higher price point, these items remain out of reach for a large number of consumers. Understanding the needs of these varied audiences will go a long way in meeting the needs of a range of gluten-free customers.

The growing portfolio of products with improved sensory profiles means gluten-free products will likely retain a strong base among those who seek out its elements. Continuing popularity signals more consumers find the taste and texture qualities to be more acceptable – better replicating the profile of mainstream products.

“While there is certainly innovation around gluten-free products, many formulators are sticking to the basics,” said Melissa Trimmer, corporate executive chef, director of culinary and innovation studio, Dawn Foods. “Imagine being able to have your favorite vanilla cupcake again, but while something new sounds fun, what you really want is your favorite vanilla cupcake – just gluten-free.”

Before innovating on the trends, the Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., cautions that it’s necessary to understand the why behind the desire to create new products. Resist the pressure to innovate and stay ahead of the curve, especially when 9 out of 10 new products fail, according to the consumer culture consultancy. Innovations with staying power must be demand-driven and future-oriented with taste remaining the No. 1 product driver.

“As brands continue to invest in gluten-free innovation, consumers will be the big winners with more choices, greater accessibility and products with better taste and quality,” Walker concluded.

This article is an excerpt from the March 2024 issue of Supermarket Perimeter. You can read the entire Gluten-free feature and more in the digital edition here.