KANSAS CITY — The ever-widening better-for-you category continues to attract consumers looking to make healthier lifestyle choices through free-from foods.
Ten years ago, the mention of gluten-free products within the bakery space was likely to elicit a dismissive shake of the head or roll of the eye. Many believed the sans-gluten concept to be nothing more than a fad, a trend destined to be quickly forgotten as consumers moved on to the next “big” thing. This was supported by the fact only a small percentage of consumers were celiac, making the need for gluten-free products minor at best and nothing more than a niche in the category.
To be fair, gluten-free formulation at that time, particularly on a large scale, was not for the faint of heart. Those undeterred by the prospect of gluten-free baking found the modification of wheat flour-based products likely to produce a low-volume, batter-like consistency without gluten’s natural ability to provide structure, gas retention and dough elasticity.
One of the main challenges is that there is no traditional dough in the preparation stage, explained Sarah Hite, food scientist at Dawn Foods, Jackson, Mich. This created formulations that could be hit or miss in terms of texture and flavor.
“In gluten-free bread, gluten protein networks create consistency that resemble dough,” Hite said. “Without these proteins, you only have batter. This is not necessarily an issue in producing sweet items like cakes and muffins, but it is a hurdle in bread production where a proofed dough is critical.”
Consumers in search of gluten-free bakery options were often left to their own devices. In many cases, the production of gluten-free became personal as individual bakers and small bakeries experimented with small batch gluten-free options that could be safely enjoyed by themselves and their loved ones. With persistence, these pioneers created formulations with improved flavor and better mouthfeel.
Those looking to formulate outside the proverbial bread box might include pulses (chickpeas and lentils), natural gluten-free flours with higher protein content and additional fortification from a non-wheat source of plant-based protein such as pea, soy or oat. Other options for good sources of protein include dairy-based whey and caseinate, which improve texture, taste, flavor and color.
News of these successes often spread virally and through word of mouth among the estimated 85 million Americans impacted by food allergies and intolerances. In some cases, this led to acquisitions of smaller, gluten-free companies by larger CPG brands, bringing more consumers to the space and yielding more variety and better-quality products throughout the gluten-free landscape, according to Courtney LeDrew, senior marketing manager, Cargill, Minneapolis.
Consumer interest in gluten-free products has nearly quadrupled in the past decade, according to recent statistics by Spoonshot AI, and a New York University study found one-third of U.S. adults are actively looking to reduce gluten in their diets.
Lessons learned from persistence and continuing experimentation continue to fuel advances within the category. The introduction of a range of new ingredients is advancing formulation beyond the use of highly refined flours, single starches and a reliance on gums.
Today, R&D is leveraging starch and flour blends, emulsifiers and enzymes to produce gluten-free foods offering better taste and texture and improved process feasibility, shelf life and overall eating quality. Some health-conscious swaps include whole and ancient grains (quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, teff and millet), corn and soy flours and the use of plant-based proteins. Other alternative flours finding additional play in gluten-free products include flours made from jackfruit, okara, breadfruit, coffee cherry and orange byproduct.
These functional systems are designed to make it easier to create the gluten-free baked goods consumers love without additional technology, special processes or new formulations, according to Kathy Sargent, director of global market strategy, Corbion, Lenexa, Kan.
Eschewing the finely granulated flours, modified food starches and gums that were a staple of early gluten-free products, modern formulations feature plant-based starches derived from corn, tapioca and potato and texturizers, which dovetail with growing consumer demand for clean-label products with easy-to-understand ingredient labels.
While labeling for gluten-free remains voluntary, groups such as The Gluten-Free Certification Program (GFCP), created by the Allergen Control Group and the Canadian Celiac Association, provide gluten-free certification for the United States and Canada. The certification process includes ingredient sourcing, employee training, cleaning practices, cross-contact controls, operational management and end-to-end testing.
“By focusing on the health appeal of their gluten-free creations, bakers are catering to consumers in search of items that are organic, high in fiber or protein and free of soy, dairy, added sugar or nuts,” Sargent said. “The popularity of plant-based foods has helped fuel new creative products and interest in the gluten-free space as many plant-based ingredients are also naturally free of gluten.”
Even during a pandemic, when consumers sought out comfort and homestyle eating over health, gluten-free products still managed to grow, according to Nielsen, Chicago. Nielsen’s POS Sweet Bakery discovered 70% of consumers globally said they will be more attentive to natural ingredient claims because of COVID-19. Retail unit sales data show gluten-free sales up 10% from 2019-2020, outperforming total food and beverage sales. This also included a jump in the gluten-free baking mix category, according to IDDBA, Madison, Wis.
“Gluten-free falls into the free-from category and people are gravitating to this as a lifestyle choice,” said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator, IDDBA. “For some, this might be the notion that it’s a healthier product than those that contain gluten. It all depends on the individual and what they deem to be healthy and better for them.”
Beyond purchases made by those with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, the surge in the purchase of gluten-free is attributed to increased awareness of food’s role in health and immunity. This attention is creating a springboard for a range of free-from products positioning food as a lifestyle choice, including the ongoing embrace of low-carb and plant-based and vegan products that support the environment through sustainable choices.
To meet the growing demand for gluten-free bakery options, Ardent Mills, Denver, offers gluten-free 1-to-1 all-purpose flour in 5- and 25-pound bags. The versatile product can be used in bread, crackers, chips, biscuits, pancakes, waffles, tortilla and batters, offering the addition of added nutrition in gluten-free products. The company also introduced a gluten-free pizza flour with the same look, taste and texture as traditional pizza crust.
“Food manufacturers are rising to the challenge by using innovative formulations and unique ingredients to add protein, fiber and other essential nutrients to their projects, said Lindsey Morgan, head of product marketing, Ardent Mills. “It’s not uncommon to see gluten-free products that contain chia seeds, alternative flours, dried or raw vegetables and ancient grains.”
As witnessed by the label readers who seek a healthier lifestyle through food, those BYF products don’t always neatly fit into a single free-from category. For example, it’s difficult to find products that are both vegan and gluten-free, pointed out Anne Marie Halfmann, senior manager category marketing, Dawn Foods.
While both the gluten-free and vegan categories are in high demand, crossovers present formulation hurdles. In gluten-free products, eggs are typically used to provide strength and structure to a product. In vegan products, gluten is relied on for strength and structure. Despite this, Halfmann deems the vegan/gluten-free combination a big opportunity and a huge challenge.
“A gluten-free diet is just one component of an overall healthy lifestyle,” she said. “Many gluten-free consumers are also vegan, so they are looking for ways to make purchases that are better for the planet.”
Morgan expects continuing investment in R&D to create innovative gluten-free ingredient formulations. Findings from Innova Market Insights suggest gluten-free products are also attractive to consumers looking for simple foods to serve to friends and family who may or may not be enjoying a gluten-free diet.
Richard predicts that what’s happening in the gluten-free category within the commercial bread aisle and in packaged goods will soon be mirrored in the instore bakery. He encourages those in instore to get a pulse on what people are currently buying and then offer a fresh version within instore to resonate with those who are already on the lookout for gluten-free products.
Sargent backed this up, asserting that gluten-free will always have a place in the bakery as individuals with celiac disease and an intolerance to gluten continue to seek out high-quality gluten-free baked goods. Halfmann suggested instore bakers dedicate a portion of the bakery case to better-for-you options like gluten-free, including gluten friendly options that are produced with gluten-free ingredients but not necessarily made in a gluten-free kitchen.
“Consumers who don’t have celiac disease or gluten allergies will continue to come to this category for their perceived health benefits,” LeDrew concluded. “This expanding consumer base is a big reason why the category has posted steady growth.”
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