Strong predictions of continuing category growth demonstrate that gluten-free bakery is solidly standing the test of time.

A decade or even five years ago, few could have predicted the staying power of the gluten-free market. With a four-year dollar CAGR of 19.4% and a four-year unit CAGR of 17.9%, gluten-free is here for the duration.

Dollar sales in the category registered $468,463,767, up from $395,870,584, a $73,593,183 dollar sales change versus a year ago, and a 18.6% dollar sales change, according to IRI International, Chicago.

Growth of gluten-free has been at ~5% in the past five years, which overperforms baked goods, according to JP Frossard, vice president, consumer foods RaboResearch, Rabobank Group, Atlanta and Chicago. While center store accounts for the majority of gluten-free unit sales, perimeter is growing, accounting for 29.2% of units.

In the Perimeter, Alyssa’s Cookies and Healthy Oatmeal Bites, Jupiter, Fla., are showing growth of +22.2% versus a year ago. The cookies contain 100% all-natural ingredients and are free of hydrogenated oils, margarine, additives and preservatives.

“Anything the perimeter can do to help consumers understand nutritional aspects could help improve its growth of gluten-free sales,” said Tim Grzenbinski, client insights principal, dairy and bakery, IRI. “There is an impetus for preventative wellness and the trend is going to stick. Look to create messaging around better-for-you and health and wellness and make it convenient.”

Strong legion

The bakers who found inspiration in their personal and family connections to celiac disease and gluten intolerance are largely responsible for the category’s ongoing growth. This personal commitment to create a product for oneself, one’s family or a friend continues to strike a nerve among the 1%, or 3 million, Americans who have celiac disease – those for whom keeping gluten-free isn’t a choice.

The category is also buoyed by the estimated 13%, or roughly 40 million Americans, who experience issues related to gluten-intolerance. Consumers making lifestyle choices linked to health perceptions are helping to drive growth in the category, according to Courtney LeDrew, marketing manager, Cargill, Minneapolis. The company’s most recent IngredientTracker proprietary consumer research found 9% of survey respondents say they follow a gluten-free diet, up two points from the previous year.

Fifty-percent of consumers claim to choose gluten-free foods at least some of the time, confirming that many consumers are eating gluten-free by choice, according to proprietary research from Denver-based Ardent Mills. IRI found 49% are choosing more better-for-you products than they did a year ago, and 33% are eating healthy to combat pandemic-related over-indulgences.

Gen X and Boomer shoppers account for the majority of gluten-free bakery sales (65%), while younger Millennials offer the fastest growth in the category, up 34.4% versus a year ago. The growth should not come as a surprise as Millennials prioritize health and wellness, using online information to find the healthiest food, according to Grzebinski.

“Consumers are adapting their lifestyle and dietary patterns in pursuit of their individual perception of health and wellness,” said Matthew Schueller, director of marketing insights and analytics, Ardent Mills. “Food manufacturers have responded to these lifestyle and dietary patterns and the gluten-free category as a whole has grown exponentially as a result.”

Just plain good

As consumers increasingly demand the mainstreaming of alternate lifestyle and diet offerings, companies like Dawn Foods, Jackson, Mich., are seeing higher expectations in the gluten-free space. This includes a shift from gluten-free as a diet fad to a lifestyle choice that supports holistic wellness needs.

Higher expectations mean gluten-free products must taste just as good as a gluten-filled version. Thankfully, there’s little doubt of the incredible innovation happening in the category. Today’s gluten-free products are simply better – better taste, better texture and better quality.

This can be attributed to the formulation of gluten-free baked goods using more trendy, nutritious and/or highly functional ingredients in terms of protein, dietary fiber, micronutrients and improved sensory attributes (texture and flavor), according to Kathy Lewis, senior R&D scientist at Ardent Mills.

When it comes flavor pairings for gluten-free baking, Melissa Trimmer, corporate executive chef, Dawn Foods, follows the adage “If it grows together, it goes together.” This particularly applies when introducing new flavors through additional flours.

“If I’m going to use almond flour, then I’m absolutely going to jump to stone fruit as an accompaniment. If I’m thinking about buckwheat flour, then I’m thinking about berries,” she said.

“When thinking about gluten-free products, it’s really important to make baked goods that aren’t just ‘good for gluten-free,’ but just good desserts in general,” she continued. “Bakers want and expect their gluten-free mix to simply make good cake and then perform like other cakes in their repertoire.”

Partnering for possibility

Today, perfect partnering demands understanding the physical, chemical, functional and sensory properties of individual ingredients and often requires a combination of flours, starches, hydrocolloids and quality protein to optimize volume and crumb structure.

Cargill has long been a partner to those looking to improve formulations and create cleaner labels. Its SimPure potato and tapioca starches provide structure, serving as the backbone of a gluten-free dough. Xanthan gum contributes gel strengths and supports proper batter viscosity, air entrapment, crumb elasticity and stability.

The plant-based trend is also alive in the gluten-free category with solutions such as Cargill’s Prolia soy flour or PURIS pea protein. These products extend crumb softening over time and prevent starch degradation. Bakers working with sticky gluten-free dough can use soy, sunflower or canola lecithins, which offer strong release agent properties and improved processability.

Ardent Mills is also seeing casava flour, pea protein isolate and fibers such as pea and potato trending in gluten-free bakery items. These ingredients can be used alone or in combination to increase volume and to enhance crumb structure with minimal flavor impact. Added fiber offers the advantage of water binding, which may slow staling of some baked goods; while protein and fiber ingredients enhance the nutritional profile to support a better-for-you image of gluten-free foods, Lewis noted.

As consumers continue to become more label savvy, companies like Cargill are also looking to provide more label friendly solutions such as SimPure soluble rice flour. The new, more label friendly maltodextrin solution suits formulations that need thickening or bulking. The product offers similar viscosity, sensory, taste and bulking agent functionality while aligning with consumer preferences for familiar ingredients. Targeted use of gums, starches and enzymes has led to the creation of products consumers find more acceptable than they did 10 years ago, according to McKenna Mills, senior technical services specialist for bakery, Cargill.

“Today, we’re much better at leveraging starch blends to address flavor and texture challenges,” she continued. “For example, while a single starch may have a neutral, pleasing flavor profile, it may not provide the desired finished product texture. However, by utilizing complimentary gluten-free starch and flour blends, we can often deliver an improved sensory performance.”

Grain enhanced

Reduction in the use of ingredients with low amounts of fiber has also opened the gateway for greater use of ancient grains, which further enhance gluten-free as a lifestyle or dietary choice for wellness. Unrefined ancient grains tend to be higher in protein, Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and zinc in addition to being a good source of fiber.

Ardent Mills is seeing rapid growth in the popularity of alternative and emerging grains, which provide a range of plant-based protein, fiber and other vitamins and minerals. The company’s best-selling gluten-free ingredients include chickpeas and quinoa, and flours made of chickpea, oat, buckwheat and sorghum along with customizable gluten-free flour blends. Gluten-free may also provide an alternative for bakers contemplating how to formulate around sesame, the newest allergen, using gluten-free quinoa flakes as a substitute.

If allergens aren’t a concern, nut flours provide a great source for protein and offer unique flavor nuances. The addition of protein to gluten-free formulas fills some of the functional gaps left behind when gluten is removed. Plant proteins can help prevent starch retrogradation while also providing film-forming properties and supporting moisture retention, browning and even flavor. Often this includes a combination of pea protein and soy flour, Mills said.

“Within the gluten-free bakery sphere, alternative and emerging grains are rapidly growing in popularity since they are able to provide the taste, texture and satisfaction of traditional bakery items without gluten,” said Lindsey Morgan, head of product marketing, Ardent Mills. “These ingredients do more than just take the place of gluten – they also provide added benefits.”

Considering the category’s continuing growth and strong sales, it may be time to cease characterizing gluten-free as merely a niche or fad. Thanks to ongoing consumer interest, ingredient enhancements and formulation improvements, gluten-free bakery can now be considered more foundational than fad.

Category predictions

“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. New ingredients and technologies will help bakers deliver even tastier products.” – Courtney LeDrew, marketing manager, Cargill

“It’s not just enough for something to be gluten-free, plant-based or high in protein. It also has to taste delicious.” – Melissa Trimmer, certified executive pastry chef, corporate executive chef, Dawn Foods

“Given the focus on health and wellness and preventative nutrition, I would expect gluten-free bakery to continue to have strong growth moving forward. Also, as younger generations continue to grow in buying power, that too should help fuel gluten-free bakery momentum.” – Tim Grzebinski, client insights principal, dairy and bakery, IRI International

“We expect consumer interest and demand in alternative lifestyle and diet offerings will continue to grow. We’re keeping a close eye on the low- or low net-carbohydrate lifestyle, for example, because the trend aligns well with gluten-free offerings.” – Matthew Schueller, director of marketing insights and analytics, Ardent Mills.

Top gluten-free perimeter sales

Product Dollar Sales Dollar Sales Chg. Vs YA Dollar Sales % Chg. Vs YA:

  • Perimeter Cookies $41,572,355 $4,456,606 12.0%
  • Perimeter Cakes $33,845,519 $5,856,081 20.9%
  • Perimeter Breads $21,088,832 $2,63,976 13.8%
  • Perimeter Pastry/Danish/Coffee Cake $3,727,771 $1,575,231 73.2%
  • Perimeter Brownies/Squares/Bars $3,65,349 -$385,190 -9.5%

Source: IRI International, latest 52 weeks, ending July 10, 2022

Alternative grains and flours

  • Quinoa – nutty and lightly earthy flavor, with heat application can gain a pleasant nutty-savory flavor
  • Sorghum flour – mild and lightly sweet grain that pairs well with sweet or savory flavors
  • Chickpea flour – mild beany, grassy flavor and roasting highlights a pleasant nuttiness
  • Brown Rice Flour – nutty grain flavor, similar to whole wheat, with less bitterness
  • Millet Seed – nutty/somewhat grassy flavor can be lessened with high heat or added sweetness
  • Buckwheat flour – nutty and earthy flavor with sweet-brown flavors, good for savory products