As calls to enhance the nutritional profile of gluten-free products amplify, the possibilities of such improvements increase. Nuts, pulses and ancient grains, used both as ingredients and flour sources, may boost protein and fiber levels.

The sixth edition of a report on gluten-free foods in the United States published last year by Packaged Facts focused on nutrition. Pulses offer more fiber, protein and micronutrients than other gluten-free staples like rice and tapioca flour, according to Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md.

“The appeal of ancient and sprouted grains is much like that of pulses,” Packaged Facts added. “For food processors, these ingredients provide whole food, plant-based protein sources that enhance appearance, deliver unique tastes and textures, pack a nutritional wallop and invite variety and innovation. A number of ancient grains are gluten-free, as are sprouted ingredients made from (gluten-free) ancient grains, nuts, seeds and beans.”

Nuts, pulses such as chickpeas, and ancient grains like buckwheat and quinoa are becoming more prevalent in flour but not dominating, said Rachel Cheatham, Ph.D., founder and chief executive officer of Foodscape Group L.L.C., a Chicago-based company that serves as a “navigation partner” for its client companies involved in the food industry.

“There are more and more of them out there, and they are more niche,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to suddenly blanket the baked goods aisle with sorghum and buckwheat.”

Dr. Cheatham said she has observed three phases of the gluten-free market over the past few years. At first, companies focused on removing gluten to make the food items suitable for people with celiac disease. The second phase focused on taste.

“Now, what I like to think is happening, is this desire to also optimize nutrition,” she said of the third phase.

Research presented in early March at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention/Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health 2017 Scientific Sessions focused on one health area. Eating more gluten was associated with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Researchers estimated daily gluten intake for 199,794 people in three long-term health studies. People in the highest 20% of gluten consumption had a 13% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes when compared to people who had the lowest daily gluten consumption.

The researchers noted people who ate less gluten also tended to eat less fiber.

“We wanted to determine if gluten consumption will affect health in people with no apparent medical reasons to avoid gluten,” said Geng Zong, Ph.D., a research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. “Gluten-free foods often have less dietary fiber and other micronutrients, making them less nutritious, and they also tend to cost more. People without celiac disease may reconsider limiting their gluten intake for chronic disease prevention, especially for diabetes.”

Gluten-free flour options

Nuts, pulses and ancient grains all may provide nutrition, such as when used as a flour source in gluten-free products.

A quarter-cup serving of almond flour contains 6 grams of protein, 3.5 grams of fiber and 75 mg of calcium, said Jeff Smith, director of marketing for Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, Calif.

“With Blue Diamond almond flour, manufacturers of gluten-free, grain-based foods can easily transition from traditional flour in recipes without compromising taste or texture,” Mr. Smith said. “Generally, almond flour cannot be substituted cup for cup in certain applications. Fats and oils can be reduced by approximately 25% when baking with almond flour as the flour itself has a higher fat content compared to traditional flour. Sugar may also be reduced by about 25% in baked goods because almonds also have a sweet flavor on their own.”

Cook times may need to increase by about 5 minutes because of the extra moisture in almond flour, Mr. Smith said. Since almond flour has no gluten as a binder, batters and doughs may need firming up. Egg whites may act as a binder in those instances.

“People love the nut flours because of the higher protein content,” Dr. Cheatham said. “Of course, the big caveat is they behave differently.”

The texture, moisture and density of the flour must be taken into account with nuts, she said.

The Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi), Winnipeg, Man., has investigated ways to use pulses, including pulse flours, to increase nutritional levels while keeping taste and functionality.

A recent study involved crackers. Pulse flour blends were incorporated at 32.6% of the flour mixture while pea fiber made up 7% of the formulation. The Cigi tried out three different blends of pulse flours in the crackers: 50% whole yellow pea and 50% split red lentil, 50% whole yellow pea and 50% pre-cooked navy bean, and 50% split red lentil and 50% pre-cooked navy beans.

Besides flour and starch ingredients, other ingredients in the crackers were salt, xanthan gum, ammonium bicarbonate, whole egg powder, egg white powder, vegetable shortening, water and apple cider vinegar.

All the crackers with pulses in the flour had a better nutritional profile, including fiber content. The crackers with yellow pea and split red lentil in the flour had 2 grams of fiber and 2 grams of protein per 15-gram serving, which compared to 1 gram of protein and 0 grams of fiber in the gluten-free control cracker.

Adding the pulse flours and pea fiber created crackers that were more firm and generally thicker compared to the gluten-free control cracker, although on the seventh day firmness decreased for all the pulse samples. Flexibility and moisture content decreased on the seventh day except in the cracker with yellow pea and split red lentil cracker in the flour.

Among the crackers containing pulse flour blends, the crackers containing yellow pea and pre-cooked navy beans in the flour maintained texture best through the first seven days and produced the thinnest cracker. Crackers made with flour containing yellow pea and red lentil produced a cracker with the most desirable flavor.

Best Cooking Pulses, Portage la Prairie, Man., cited a study in which pulse flours replaced wheat flour in gluten-free batters and breading. Whole or split yellow pea flour replaced 100% of the wheat flour in a chicken nugget. Because of increased adhesion, the pulse flour resulted in a more golden, crispier chicken nugget that had a longer hold time under a heat lamp than the wheat control chicken nugget.

Dr. Cheatham said buckwheat, an ancient grain like quinoa, may see more use in gluten-free items. Buckwheat flour has a more pronounced flavor than wheat flour, she said.

“It’s going to have a nuttier, earthier taste that surely some consumers will love and others will not,” she said.

Blends of ancient grains are other possibilities in gluten-free flours.

“It’s actually a marketing tool,” Dr. Cheatham said. “You’ve got a lot of really quality ingredients and sort of a heartiness to it.”

Ancient Harvest uses combinations of grains and beans/legumes to reach higher protein levels in its pasta products, she added.

Flour blends in seasonings and mixes may include mixtures of gluten-free grain flours and ancient grains, and vegetable proteins and vegetable protein isolates may be used in some mixes, said Roni Eckert, a senior scientist for Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, Wis.

“Mixes and seasoning blends can be enriched nutritionally,” she said. “Ancient grain flour can be used for natural supplementation while vegetable proteins can be used to supplement protein content. Also, fiber can be increased, and salt and some sugar can be reduced.”

More emphasis on nutrition may help the gluten-free category stay in a growth phase. Packaged Facts expects the growth rates in the gluten-free foods market to slow significantly from the high double-digit levels experienced a decade ago to solid single-digit rates in the coming years. Packaged Facts in its October 2016 report projected all-channel sales of gluten-free foods in the nine categories it analyzed to reach sales of more than $2 billion in 2020, an increase of nearly $400 million from sales in 2015.

“Maybe it will never resume that off-the-chart rate of growth that we saw when it first really started, but I think that it’s here to stay,” Dr. Cheatham said.