Gluten—the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and spelt—gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and keep its shape. It is because of gluten that baked goods made with wheat have their characteristic texture, strength, and crumb structure, and other sensory properties. From that perspective, you might say that this protein is the “glue” that holds baked goods together. And let’s not forget that gluten also functions as a thickening agent and filler for a wide range of other products from ketchup to vitamins (although some of them do not necessarily have gluten listed on their ingredients statements).
If gluten performs such a valuable service, why take it out of the formulation? Well, unfortunately, for a certain percentage of the population, the consumption of gluten can cause serious medical conditions, such as celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder. People with celiac disease have only one recourse: they must avoid gluten in their diets. An estimated 2.1 million adults are afflicted with celiac disease; this is approximately 1 in 133 people, an incidence of 0.9% of the total U.S. population. (The Celiac Sprue Association also estimates that there are more than 1.8 million undiagnosed adults with this disorder in the U.S.) Furthermore, studies have also shown that another 18 million Americans may be gluten intolerant and consequently would benefit from gluten-free products as well.
An increased awareness of celiac disease, in part, has driven interest in the gluten-free market. But the growth of this market has also been fueled by other consumer health trends including weight management and those that favor simpler, less processed foods. This has resulted in a gluten-free explosion over the past several years, with sales of gluten-free foods and beverages expected to reach $2.6 billion in 2012, up from $580 million in 2004. According to the market research organization Packaged Facts, the market for gluten-free foods has grown much faster than expected, at a compound annual growth rate of 30% from 2006 to 2010.
Whether this growth will continue has been the subject of debate. More important, I think, is the discussion regarding who should not consume gluten-free foods. In my opinion, gluten-free products are not meant to be consumed by everyone. Nor should they be interpreted or marketed as a general health food. (My blog on page 62 will cover more of these thoughts regarding the current gluten-free craze.)
Not surprisingly, when gluten is removed from baked goods and other formulations, sensory properties such as taste and mouthfeel have traditionally been compromised. And since gluten is present in a wide range of foods, it has been difficult for consumers to find gluten-free alternatives that taste good and have desirable texture properties. Consequently, manufacturers are looking for different ingredient solutions that will address these problems.
And they have been at least partially successful. Numerous products have been recently launched into the marketplace. For example, a leading provider of whole-grain foods, Bob’s Red Mill Natural Products, Portland, Ore., launched gluten-free muesli, one of the few such products in the marketplace. The product is described as a hearty and wholesome mix of wholegrain gluten-free rolled oats, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries and apples, brown rice puffs, almonds, and coconut. The company now offers more than 70 gluten-free flours, cereals, baking mixes, and grains. Also, the company is offering a new booklet, “Gluten Freedom,” that provides hospitals, universities, school cafeterias, and restaurants with information on how to set up safe, gluten-free commercial kitchens. The guide provides tips on avoiding cross-contact, on the selection of gluten-free foods and ingredients, on storage and preparation, and on safe gluten-free baking.
High Performance Muffins, Boonton, N.J., recently created a muffin that, according to the company, replaces ingredients such as gluten with alternatives that do not compromise on flavor. The product—High Performance Muffins—is made with gluten-free rolled oats.