Gluten-free food launches grew 170% in the five years from 2009 to 2013, according to Mintel. Across Europe, activity was especially frenetic in Spain (20%), the UK (17%), Germany (16%), Italy (10%) and France (5%).
Improved diagnosis of coeliac disease is one reason why the market is booming. One in 100 people in the UK have coeliac disease, for instance, but it's estimated that only between 10 and 15% of those individuals have been diagnosed.
David Shaw, commercial director with gluten-free specialist Genius, highlights two more drivers for growth: “We’re seeing more and more high-quality products coming to the marketplace, so the coeliac community, which has eaten these products for years, now has access to great-tasting new foods. Then there are other consumers who are adopting elements of the gluten-free lifestyle because it makes them feel better.”
Keep growing (Return to top)
“As long as the quality keeps improving and new products are developed, the market will keep growing,” he predicts. “Lifestyle consumers are looking for a gluten-free experience with products that closely match the mainstream. They’re looking for a 'normal' experience.” Genius currently has products on the supermarket shelves in Spain and Holland, as well as in its home market in the UK.
Historically, gluten-free products were available on prescription for diagnosed coeliacs, but the addition of ‘lifestylers’ to the pool of customers means that gluten-free ranges are now on the shelves of many supermarkets. In addition, a growing number of standard products that have never contained gluten are keen to highlight that they’re ‘naturally gluten-free’.
Non-specialists need to tread carefully, however. High-end snack manufacturer Kettle Chips was recently forced to withdraw packs of its sweet potato crisps because the pack boasted that it included ‘no gluten-containing ingredients’, even though wheat is labelled on the ingredients list.
More gluten-free claims may be appearing on standard products, but it’s the companies looking to take gluten-free into hitherto no-go areas that are really pushing the envelope in terms of the range of products suitable for those avoiding wheat.
New products (Return to top)
Gluten-free pastry is a relatively recent success story, for instance. Genius announced at the start of the year that it had mastered gluten-free shortcrust and puff pastry, with products now on sale in Asda. The company also announced it was teaming up with Denby Dale to supply a range of frozen pies in steak and chicken variants.
Meanwhile NO.G Too Good To Be True Gluten Free from the Riverside Bakery was voted ‘Best New Idea Winner 2014’ at Food & Drink Expo in March. The company’s chilled range of pastries includes Slow Cooked Beef & Mushroom Pie, Butternut, Spinach & Emmental Pie, Chorizo Topped Frittata, Cheese & Tomato Topped Frittata, Mini Cheese & Bacon Soufflés, Chocolate & Morello Cherry Tart, and Blueberry & Vanilla Cheesecake and was available from April.
Warburtons’ gluten-free brand, Newburn Bakehouse, has also been tackling product types that have traditionally been off the menu for wheat-free consumers. Most notably, the company has cracked the problem of brittleness to produce rollable wraps, including white and seeded versions. Sandwich Thins are another addition to the range, in white, seeded and fruity versions, while Newburn’s Cracker Thins offer Sweet Chilli and Blue Cheese options.
According to Chris Hook, Warburtons’ director of gluten- and wheat-free, some of these products are enabling the manufacturer to push beyond retail and into foodservice with gluten-free for the first time. He says the company’s wraps now play a starring role in a vegetarian houmous-filled option at Starbucks, for instance. “Wraps were an especially significant breakthrough for foodservice/food-to-go. There’s been so little available until recently that most coeliacs bring their own food with them at all times, just in case,” he says. “All the recent launches are about looking at where the gaps are and where there’s a need.”
Gluten-free cuts across a range of categories. For instance, global confectionery launches with a gluten-free positioning increased by 46% from 2012 to 2013, according to the Innova Database, with own-label confectioner Carmit Candy Industries recently launching its Luscious Chocolate Clusters internationally. However, bakery remains at the heart of the gluten-free offer. Furthermore, it's also among the most challenging categories to get right.
“Cakes and sweet products are easy because you’ve got things like sugar and chocolate in there to make it taste nice,” says Hook. “Bread is a monumental challenge in comparison. It's more food science than baking. It demands new ingredients and processes.”
Complicated process (Return to top)
He says that when Warburtons first dipped its toe in the gluten-free market, the baker thought that it’s experience of standard bakery would enable it to make a relatively straightforward transition. The company was soon proved wrong. “It’s a different process and much more complicated. The gluten-free product starts life more like a batter than a dough,” says Hook.
“There are a lot of technical challenges associated with gluten-free,” confirms Yann Salaun, product and technical director for Genius. “Gluten is magic stuff in mainstream products. It’s very elastic but it’s also got other important rheological properties. It’s got a bit of ‘memory’ in terms of shape during proving and baking and the gluten network creates a fantastic structure where bubbles can be trapped. Without that it’s a real challenge. When you look at a gluten-free recipe it looks quite complex because no one ingredient can do everything that gluten does.”
“The problem with gluten-free is that wheat gives you everything,” confirms Professor Elke Arendt, from the department of food and nutritional sciences at the University College Cork. “You need a mixture of gluten-free flour, starch, hydrocolloids and proteins to achieve a similar result.”
She adds that it’s also vital to get the water content right. Whereas wheat-based doughs typically have a water content around 60%, the more-liquid gluten-free formulations are usually over 90% water. “This can give a very crumbly texture in the finished product, although some of the newer products have mastered this,” she says, suggesting that hydrocolloids such as xanthan and guar gum can be the key to a good, elastic product where replacement proteins such as rice, potato or pea can’t deliver the same viscoelastic properties as gluten.
Innovative alternatives are arriving on the market all the time, such as Glanbia’s OptiSol 5000 series, which were originally developed as a flaxseed-derived answer to guar gum shortages.
Choosing the right starch is another area that can trip up unwary formulators, according to Arendt: “Wheat starch is fairly unique. No other starch has characteristics that resemble it. It’s important for the water absorption properties and the structure of the product.”
Continually evolving (Return to top)
Salaun says that until five years ago, gluten-free bread was “very dense and gummy” because the necessary know-how wasn’t there. “It’s a continually evolving sector in terms of ingredients base. Genius works closely with suppliers because gums, fibres, enzymes and starch all play a different role in the formulation. The challenge is to work out how these ingredients can work together in gluten-free products,” he says.
“It’s really important to talk to a variety of ingredients suppliers and maintain a dialogue,” agrees Hook. “It’s an incredible amount of work for a niche market.”
But it’s precisely that development effort that has enabled companies to attract the lifestylers, who may be eating a standard muffin one day and expect the same, pleasurable experience when they opt for a gluten-free version the next. This can make them more demanding than coeliacs, who cannot make such direct comparisons.