KANSAS CITY, MO. - Bakers understand the substitution of gluten in baked goods is no easy task. 

Complications arising from the elimination of the combined storage protein in wheat, barley, rye and oats mean there is no simple one-to-one substitution, creating a not-unreasonable perception that gluten-free production is difficult, time-consuming and costly. Close to a decade after its initial introduction, manufacturers continue to experiment with new ways to create delicious, more nutritious gluten-free baked goods.  

Gluten free is a category many in the baking industry initially earmarked as a fad, but the category continues to draw consumers through continued innovation and the use of unique ingredients. Research from Markets and Markets predicted the gluten-free market would reach $7.51 billion this year with a CAGR of 10.4%. By 2026, the gluten-free market could reach $7.91 billion, according to Reports and Data.  

Audiences attracted to gluten-free options include those with celiac disease and consumers who see gluten-free eating as a healthier way of living and/or a weight management tool. While only about 1% of the population officially receives a diagnosis of celiac disease, a long-term autoimmune disorder that primarily affects the small intestine, those who have a first-degree relative are more likely to observe a celiac diet as a precaution. These first-degree individuals have a 1-in-10 chance to develop celiac disease, according the Celiac Disease Foundation. Additionally, it’s believed an estimated 83% of Americans with celiac disease remain undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions, according to beyondceliac.org.  

Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager, Cargill, Wayzata, Minn., shared that 20% of consumers perceive gluten-free foods and beverages as being healthier (2019 USA Trend Study - HealthFocus International). Packaged Facts noted eating gluten-free is especially prevalent among those who make efforts to eat clean label foods or regularly purchase organic products. Yet taste remains the primary purchase driver. 

Once upon a time, few consumers would’ve celebrated gluten-free products for their great texture and mouthfeel, let alone a favorable nutritional profile. This was in part because many of the first gluten-free products relied on the use of single starches as a substitute for wheat flour and a few specific gums for texture control. Today, the incorporation of naturally occurring sources of protein such as dairy (protein isolates concentrate, whey and casein) and egg (fresh, frozen and powdered) along with a variety of alternative flours and ancient grains, which predate modern wheat by thousands of years, continue to change the dynamic.  

“We’ve come a long way in our understanding of how to use ingredient blends, especially starch blends, to better address flavor and texture,” said Allison Leibovich, senior technical service specialist, bakery, Cargill. 

Because gluten-free foods were not always the positive experience they are today, a growing number of companies are looking for ways to introduce or reintroduce consumers to a variety of foods using gluten-free ingredients. Demonstrating new ways for consumers to enjoy gluten-free additions is one of the roles played by people like Marie Ostrosky.  

Ostrosky, a food stylist and recipe developer, works with a variety of manufacturers and food associations to keep innovation and accessibility at the forefront of food through the development of recipes and formulations using interesting gluten-free flours in creative ways. She shared that while many previously focused primarily on the use of gluten-free nut flours, more are expanding into the inclusion of vegetable and fruit flours.  

To obtain the most successful results, Ostrosky cautioned the importance of understanding the technical and functional effects of each flour in a recipe. For example, some baked goods, such as biscuits, that require less handling to avoid gluten development actually work better with gluten-free flours. Formulations requiring a chewy and substantial profile benefit from using coconut, chickpea and bean flours. In contrast, rice flour offers a crispier profile because of its higher starch content.  

“These gluten-free flours naturally lend themselves to a better-for-you product and improved protein ratios,” Ostrosky said. “You’re getting more bang for the buck nutritionally and also creating products that are more interesting with a better feel or texture.” 

Exploring ancient grains 

With no official definition of ancient grains, The Whole Grains Council (WGC), Boston, views all whole grains as ancient with unchanging roots that can be traced back to the beginning of time. WCG considers black barley, red and black rice and blue corn as ancient grains along with sorghum, teff, millet, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and wild rice. Gluten-containing ancient grains include einkorn, emmer/farro, Kamut and spelt in the wheat family. 

While not always applicable in a 1:1 substitution, ancient grains can play a supporting role in 25% and 50% applications. 

Amaranth flour – flavor: earthy and peppery, texture: tender in small amounts, dense in larger quantities 

Buckwheat flour -  flavor: bold, toasty and rich, texture: moist and tender in small amounts, chalky in larger quantities 

Millet flour – flavor: sweet and corn-like, texture: cornbread-like in small amounts, sandy in larger quantities 

Quinoa flour – flavor: bold and nutty, texture: moist in small amounts, dry in larger quantities 

Teff flour – flavor: toasted and earthy, texture: tender in small amounts, gritty in larger quantities 

Source: King Arthur Baking 

Upping the nutrition 

The drive to create more nutritious and delicious gluten-free baked goods led to the intersection of two worlds between a personal experience with celiac disease and a traditional family bakery. 

Working through bouts of trial and error, the connection eventually led to the creation of Three Bakers Gluten Free Bakery. The Moscow, Penn.-based bakery took on the challenge of making a gluten-free bread that wasn’t dry, crumbly or poor in nutrition. The bakery first found success with pizza dough before moving on to perfect breads, rolls, cakes and cookies. Initially selling small batches out of their home, the family bakery found demand soon necessitated a move into a dedicated gluten-free baking facility. 

“It’s taken lots of trial and error to get the right ingredients into gluten-free foods,” said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator,” IDDBA, Madison, Wis. “Manufacturers tried to create a product minus wheat flour and often ended up with a product that’s over-processed. The growth in alternative flours has made a difference. It may not entirely replace wheat flour, but alternative flours offer a way to create better-tasting food without having to overcompensate for over-processing.” 

Growing interest among consumers for alternative ingredients finds bakers exploring the use of alternative flours made from buckwheat, beans, acorn, chestnut, casava, legumes, amaranth, millet, teff, nuts, corn, and dried and raw vegetables, to name a few. Some ingredients offer strength and extensibility to formulations while others add color, eye appeal and flavor. For cakes and muffins, Cargill produces Simpure starches (potato, tapioca and potato/tapioca starch blends) to replace gluten in wheat-based products. The company also offers ingredients to assist with the functional needs of gel strength, bulking agents and plasticizers, and setting and release agents. 

Dawn Foods, Jackson, Mich., offers a line of gluten-free bases formulated to perform like gluten-rich desserts. The tolerant products include bases for crème cake, cookie, cake, brownies and cake donuts that perform well after freezing with certification by the National Sanitation Foundation. The company also provides training and support programs to allow customers to safely include gluten-free items on the menu.  

Mainstreaming appeal 

Millennials, one of the largest demographics are also boosting demand for gluten-free as they seek out products with higher-quality taste and nutritional value. 

This demand is coupled with continuing interest in vegan, keto and paleo diets that dovetail with a growing desire to recognize food as medicine. Observing the related appeal of clean labels among consumers, Cargill works with its customers to “clean up” their gluten-free offerings. This includes replacing finely granulated flours coupled with modified food starches and gums with ingredients more familiar to consumers. With an eye toward understandable ingredient labels, Cargill has developed a selection of plant-based starches (corn, tapioca and potato) and custom texturizing systems that satisfy clean label requirements and maintain product quality. 

Widely popular ancient grains also introduce a natural source of protein and offer bakers ways to introduce new tastes and flavors. Richard volunteered that the presence of alternative flours and ancient grains may also attract consumers who have an interest in trying new things, even if they’re not looking for a product suitable for someone gluten-intolerant or gluten-sensitive. He predicted innovations in the commercial baking aisle and influences from once-niche gluten-free players like Udi’s and Glutino that are now part of the ConAgra portfolio to remain significant to instore bakery offerings.  

For products baked instore using alternative flours or ancient grains grown regionally or locally, Richard advocated sharing the story of the grain’s origins with customers. “People want to know where these products come from. By highlighting these offerings, you have a way to demonstrate the product is not overly processed,” he continued.  

Cargill is helping its customers highlight clean label ingredients through the telling of the origin story of the peas grown by its network of US farmers for the company’s PURIS pea protein. Cultivation of peas grown with the company’s proprietary non-GMO pea seed has been shown to minimize soil erosion, naturally return nitrogen to the soil and improve water quality, a feel-good story both manufacturers and consumers can get behind. 

With questions around the topics of sustainability, regenerative agriculture and growing practices prevalent among producers and consumers alike, storytelling offers the instore bakery, farmers and manufacturers an opportunity to communicate with consumers. A blog from Specialty Soya and Grains Alliance, Mankato, Minn., predicted long global supply chains will be questioned and there will be new attention and preferences for local production as a result of the pandemic. 

“Since many consumers perceive gluten-free products as healthier options, I see an opportunity for brands to incorporate additional functional ingredients into their formulas, building on the theme of ‘food as medicine,’” Cargill’s Leibovich said. “Prebiotics, like chicory root fiber, probiotics and even the emerging postbiotics are all examples of ingredients that could deliver added health benefits to the gluten-free products of the future. Further, since consumers aren’t just looking at foods for physical health benefits, perhaps gluten-free baked goods promoting relaxation, or stress and anxiety reduction, are just around the corner.” 

Keeping Customers Safe 

In 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defined gluten-free as containing less than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten, similar to sanctioned levels already in use by Canada and the European Union. To demonstrate understanding of the disease and ensure further safety, some gluten-free bakers choose to reduce ppm levels to 5-10 ppm and employ separate manufacturing facilities to avoid cross contamination.  

The Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) certifies foodservice operators in the safe preparation of gluten-free meals and sanitation methods. Offering independent verification, the Auburn, Wash., non-profit strives to improve understanding among foodservice workers and establish best practices in the production of gluten-free meals to keep consumers safe. 

GFCO coaches foodservice providers in additional steps required beyond normal sanitation practices to physically remove protein particles. While gluten can be eliminated with soap and water, the use of the same cleaning products for gluten-containing prep areas and kitchen equipment and gluten-free areas pose the potential for cross-contamination, a significant issue.  

This story was featured in the September edition of Supermarket Perimeter. Click here to view the whole issue