• Searching for clean-label ingredients
  • Checking ingredient labels
  • Coronavirus shows consumers appreciate longer shelf lives

Gluten-free market strategies

Sales of gluten-free products are poised to soar in 2021.

Kimberly J. Decker, Contributing Writer

We have been chasing the “clean-label” ideal for so long that you’d think we’d have caught it by now.

But then 2020 arrived, the world caught COVID-19, and the industry’s been playing catch-up ever since, trying to make sense of the year gone by and what it means for snack and bakery formulations going forward.

Today’s gluten-free snacks and baked goods deserve a pat on the back. As Steven Gumeny, regional product manager, rice ingredients and functional proteins, BENEO, Inc., Parsippany, N.J., says, “Ten years ago, it would’ve been hard to imagine that a majority of local pizzerias would have a gluten-free option on their menu.”

Even more unimaginable would’ve been the possibility that those gluten-free pizzas were actually worth ordering.

“But now, from a sensory perspective,” Gumeny continues, “we’re nearing the point where many gluten-free foods—especially snacks and baked goods—are almost indistinguishable from their gluten-containing counterparts. And that’s a good thing!”

It certainly is, especially for the growing swath of shoppers who embrace gluten-free as a lifestyle, and a bid at preventive eating. “Whether they’re choosing gluten-free for medical or personal reasons,” Gumeny says, “consumers are no longer limited to shopping the specialty aisle.” And for that, snack and bakery formulators deserve a pat on the back, too.

Growth atop growth
Cam Suarez-Bitar, director of marketing and public relations, Bellarise, Pasadena, CA, has noticed more consumers going gluten-free—and in response, more of his customers inquiring about gluten-free formulation. “Demand for gluten-free foods continues to rise,” he says, “so bakeries and manufacturers must also rise to the challenge to help consumers get the products they love and want.”

Pointing to a December 2020 Statista report, “U.S. Gluten-free Foods Market—Statistics & Facts,” Suarez-Bitar notes that the U.S. is now the top global market for gluten-free foods. “And looking ahead,” he adds, “Statista cites another study (‘Global gluten-free food market value from 2020 to 2025’) showing that the gluten-free market is expected to grow from a projected $6.3 billion in 2021 to $8.3 billion in 2025.”

The trick for snack and bakery formulators will be to keep consumers engaged in their gluten-free brands moving forward—and the ongoing pandemic has provided a key opportunity to build engagement with retail shoppers.

“With or without a pandemic, people need to eat,” says Suarez-Bitar. And widespread lockdowns definitely gave consumers more at-home opportunities to snack and rediscover their love of baked goods. Their now-notorious storming of supermarket center aisles also proved that they still have room in their cupboards for prepared and packaged items.

And judging by the data, says Ricardo Rodriguez, marketing manager, confectionery and bakery, Ingredion Incorporated, Westchester, IL, more people are filling those cupboards with gluten-free items. The pandemic goosed growth in gluten-free subcategories that “consumers couldn’t get enough of,” he notes, pointing to data from Innova Market Insights that show 27 percent growth over the previous year for both the frozen pizza and tortillas/tacos segments, as well as 38-percent growth year-over-year for baking mixes.

The healthy connection
Although it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the coronavirus would be a boon for gluten-free, the connection now seems almost elementary.

As Gumeny points out, “The pandemic highlighted the importance of health and nutrition to overall well-being.” Whether going gluten-free actually pays appreciable health dividends to the non-celiac or gluten-tolerant consumer, making that switch has nonetheless become firmly entrenched in consumers’ minds as good-for-you, he says.

So, with consumers seizing upon diet as a route to shoring up their baseline health, the healthy halo encircling gluten-free snacks and baked goods is all many need to start, or stay, shopping that way.

“Even consumers who don’t have any intolerance or allergy issues increasingly choose gluten-free products,” Gumeny points out. “Particularly in the U.S., three in four consider gluten-free products beneficial for everyone, not just those with a gluten allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity, according to Mintel’s 2018 ‘Gluten-free Foods’ report.”

Courtesy of Cargill

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Ingredients you know
People also tend to consider gluten-free foods “cleaner” than their conventional counterparts—and in the gluten-free snack and baking space, “clean” labels are as important as they are elsewhere.

But actual gluten-free formulations haven’t always been as clean as consumers would hope. As Allison Leibovich, senior technical service specialist, bakery, Cargill, Minneapolis, recalls, “Bakers once relied on finely granulated flours coupled with modified food starches and gums to avoid grittiness and maintain desirable textures in gluten-free bakery products. But now brands are approaching us looking for ingredients that are more familiar to consumers.”

Indeed, unlocking the power of “familiar” may be the future of gluten-free formulation. As Leibovich observes, “More than the introduction of new ingredients, many of the advances in the space result from learning how best to use available ones.”

“Now brands are approaching us looking for ingredients that are more familiar to consumers.”

— Allison Leibovich, senior technical service specialist, bakery, Cargill

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Instead of replacing wheat flour with a single starch and then leaning heavily on “a few specific gums for texture control,” says Leibovich—standard operating procedure in the early days—“today we’re much better at leveraging starch blends to address flavor and texture challenges. This approach, combined with more-targeted use of gums, pre-gel starches, enzymes, and other ingredients, creates products that’re much more widely acceptable than those sold a decade ago.”

Going back to basics this way has put the spotlight on native starch ingredients made from corn, tapioca, and potato, Leibovich says. Other familiar ingredients that deliver much-needed functionality in gluten-free formulation include maltodextrin and chicory root fiber, which act as bulking agents and plasticizers, setting agents like soy flour and pea protein, and release agents like soy, sunflower, and canola lecithin—all “valuable tools for gluten-free formulation,” she notes.

Courtesy of Beneo

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Back to basics
For his part, Gumeny notes that not only is rice widely considered familiar and recognizable, it’s also a standard gluten-free baking solution. Case in point: The use of his company’s rice flour and starch in a gluten-free pizza dough “brought sensorial and technical benefits comparable to wheat and gluten-containing counterparts and made the dough’s label clearer and simpler, too,” he says.

Rice ingredients can boost volume in gluten-free breads and soft baked goods, too, Gumeny continues, and Beneo’s Remyline AX FG P rice starch improves the texture of gluten-free biscuits even at low use levels. “It also helps reduce production losses from biscuit breakage during packaging,” he adds, “so a possible higher ingredient cost at the recipe level turns into greater cost savings in production, as both rice starch and micronized rice flour increase product moistness and softness, increasing baked-good shelf life.”

Rachel Klataske, director of business development, Nu Life Market, Scott City, KS, notes that demand for sorghum flour and meal—“major components of gluten-free breads and snacks,” she says—rose to “an all-time high” during COVID-19. The company’s two new sorghum-based ingredients, UltraLift and FibraGel, help formulators improve baked-good volume, dough elasticity, and crumb texture even when used at 0.5 to 2.0 percent of a gluten-free flour blend.

“Because of their high oil- and water-retention capacity,” Klataske says, “baked goods are more moist and tender, their volumes stabilize after baking, and their shelf life can be lengthened. We’ve heard from customers that they give pancakes and waffles extra lift, lighten the density of high-protein and high-fiber formulas, and improve dough extensibility in pizzas and crackers.”

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Laura Gerhard, director of strategy and marketing, Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, CA, notes that almonds “are among the most on-trend ingredients in gluten-free snack and bakery development,” adding that “gluten-free” was the top claim on new almond introductions worldwide in 2019, according to Innova Market Insights.

Gerhard and her colleagues see the nut’s popularity playing out with their customers, too. “They’re adding texture, flavor, and nutrition to their gluten-free products by using almonds in a variety of forms, including our almond flour and protein powder,” she says. One advantage of the flour is its smooth, powder-like consistency, which she says is ideal in delicate pastries. “Breads, cakes, and pastries are meant to be light and airy, and a flour needs to be extremely fine to produce that texture,” she notes. “That can be difficult for bakers of gluten-free sweet goods, because many other gluten-free flours have a gritty granulation.”

Courtesy of Blue Diamond Almonds

Ten years ago, American Key Food Products, Closter, NJ, introduced premium cassava flour, an ingredient especially designed for gluten-free baking, to the U.S. market, notes Mel Festejo, COO. In the decade since, it’s “become more prominent and shown its versatility in baking in the Paleo/grain-free segment that began to take off in 2014.” Even within the past year, he’s seen more companies consider cassava flour for gluten-free bakery and snack production. “Products where cassava flour is the main ingredient, with no other grain-free flours or starches, can capture consumers in the gluten-free, as well as the Paleo/grain-free market segments.”

Chia—a trending ingredient with superfood connotations—is finding its way into everything from gluten-free muffins, cakes, and cookies to pancakes, frozen bread, and cereal clusters, says Remi Reguero, business development manager, Benexia, Santiago, Chile. His company’s Xia Powder-435 LM exhibits excellent water-binding and absorptive capacity, improves dough cohesion, and “ensures a soft, chewy texture,” he notes—all of which suggest its utility as a substitute for gums and binders, and even as a partial replacement for fat and eggs.

Leibovich advises customers to lean on processing strategies, as well. For example, increasing hydration in gluten-free cookies can help manage their infamous lack of spread, she says, adding that “we’ve also found that, because of their limited spread, it’s best to deposit these cookies as a wire-cut puck.”

But keep expectations—and timelines—in check. “Bakers need patience when developing gluten-free formulas,” Leibovich points out. “Especially in cakes and muffins, taking time to optimize starch blends and hydrocolloids helps developers achieve the desired finished-product look and taste.”

Gluten-free, nutrition-filled
Nutritious ingredients provide a key opportunity to capture shopper attention. Chia supplies plant-based protein, omega-3 fatty acids, naturally occurring potassium, phosphorus, and calcium, as well as an ideal ratio of insoluble to soluble fiber, Reguero says—“all while being low in sugar, sodium, and saturated and trans fat.”

And that’s an impressive addition to a class of gluten-free snacks and baked goods that have historically lacked not only gluten, but substantive nutritional value, too.

“We’re seeing more emphasis on improving the nutritional profile of gluten-free products,” Leibovich says. She and her team help customers leverage whole and ancient grains, corn flour, prebiotic chicory root fiber, and plant proteins from pea and soy to “pack more nutrition into gluten-free snacks and baked goods.” Even probiotics and postbiotics might start finding their way in, she predicts.

Rodriguez notes that Ingredion’s Homecraft line of gluten-free ingredients includes pulse and quinoa flours that contribute whole-food protein and fiber. The pulse-flour options range broadly, from yellow pea, yellow lentil, and red lentil to fava bean and chickpea—all non-GMO, hypoallergenic, low-fat, low-glycemic, high in micronutrients, and vegetarian-friendly, he assures. “Breads, tortillas, pizza, cookies, cakes, crackers, and muffins are some of the baked goods where these solutions are good candidates.”

Gerhard suggests that snack and bakery formulators put almond flour’s fiber, protein, calcium, and vitamin E to use in gluten-free formulations. And with consumers seeking more protein overall, “incorporating natural plant-based sources of protein like almonds is one way that manufacturers can align their gluten-free offerings with consumer demand for functional and enhanced gluten-free products.”

Beyond gluten-free
Tim Whiting, vice president, marketing, Label Insight, Chicago, has notes the increased usage of cauliflower and sweet potato in frozen gluten-free pizza crusts. “I think in 2021 we’ll see more use of different ingredients to take the place of traditional wheat,” he wagers, “particularly ones like beans, lentils, seaweed, and mushrooms that offer more benefits for the consumer.”

Festejo notes “better-for-you” deserves a spot in gluten-free. “Formulators can enhance the marketability of their products by complementing gluten-free claims with other better-for-you traits,” he says. “Recognizing the convergence of better-for-you elements can only help to ensure that your products are not relegated to obsolescence.”

In fact, Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive and practice leader, client insights, IRI, Chicago, predicts that as we head into 2021 and beyond, being “just gluten-free” will no longer be enough. In 2020, “There were several introductions that were gluten- and grain-free, and you often find variations of benefits like gluten-free and/or nut-free, non-GMO, non-dairy, no soy, etc., in products,” she says. “And it’s not uncommon to see a listing of all a product’s ‘free-froms’ next to its positive benefits right on the pack.”

Suarez-Bitar has seen growing demand for organic gluten replacement as bakeries chase a growing list of claims beyond gluten-free alone. The Bellarise organic gluten-replacer line gives bakeries better control over quality and costs, he says, adding that “customers have come back with great feedback, especially when using it in organic pan breads, with decreased overall costs, simplified production, and improved finished-product quality.”

As for Rodriguez, he saw the plant-based trend converge with gluten-free in 2020. “In 2021, I expect plant-based to continue growing, along with more grain-free innovation, low-FODMAP development, and the use of more ancient grains to add nutritional value, like quinoa flours,” he says. He’s also looking forward to a time when consumers can feel confident that their gluten-free product is nutritious, with additional protein and fiber, but that it tastes great and meets all their other expectations, as well.

Festejo concedes that we’re not quite there yet. “Some product categories haven’t seen breakthroughs in quality that could fully satisfy gluten-free consumers in the way that their cookies and cakes have,” he notes, pointing to the classic loaf of white sandwich bread, as well as hamburger and hot dog buns. But, he continues, “Breakthroughs with these undoubtedly difficult baking applications are what we can still look forward to in this segment.”

Ten years from now, who knows how far we’ll have come? SF&WB