The technical and market challenges of gluten-free products

Technical challenges

Gluten (from Latin gluten, "glue") is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grain species, including barley and rye. It gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and to keep its shape, and often giving the final product a chewy texture.
Gluten gives viscosity, elasticity and cohesion to the dough. Therefore, the quantity and the quality of gluten present in a specific flour is an important index for evaluating the quality and its suitability for bread-making. Unfortunately, it is not possible to remove wheat flour and simply replace it with a gluten-free flour: gluten affects the texture, the structure, the flavor and the shelf life of the bakery product.

The formulation of a gluten-free product requires then a combination of different ingredients to mimic the behavior of gluten.

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So far, commercially available gluten-free breads tend to use a combination of starches, gums, emulsifiers and proteins, fats, enzymes (as processing aid), losing the cleanliness of the traditional bread recipe.
There are non-wheat flours such as potato, corn, rice, buckwheat, tapioca and sorghum which can be used as wheat replacement, but they all tend to give non-wheat-like flavors and to dry out the formulations. To correct this, gums may be added to manage the moisture and to extend the shelf-life (reduce staling): xanthan, guar and other viscoelastic gums are typical examples and are commonly used, although they might have negative other effects on the product. Replacing wheat flours may also decrease the protein content, which in turn affects other critical functional properties such as binding, moisture and air-micelle formation: egg whites are then often used for protein replacement.
Cassava flour is also suited to gluten-free baking and is in some cases used as drop-in replacement for wheat flour (eliminating the need for other starches, fours or hydrocolloids)

Segregation Management

Gluten-free productions need to be completely segregated from any possible source of gluten. This implies that a gluten-free bakery plant cannot really co-exist with a traditional bakery plant. Risk management forms the most practical and useful approach to gluten-free management, from production and raw materials segregation to putting the right product in the right packaging to putting the right label on the right product. It is not just about cross-contamination.

Gluten-free products in the marketplace

There are four non distinct classes of people who choose a gluten free diet:

1. Celiacs - The "non negotiable" group of celiac are those with the celiac gene who must remove gluten to lead a healthy life.
2. Gluten-Sensitive - People take gluten-free foods because they have gastrointestinal problems that improve when they go on a gluten-free diet. This group is said to have "gluten sensitivity," there is an immune response or associated condition even though the patient might not have the small-intestine findings on a biopsy to meet the criteria for celiac disease.
3. Gluten-Intolerants - Those who experience symptoms similar to the term lactose intolerance.
4. ASD - The last group believe the gluten-free diet may help in the treatment of autism and a host of other disorders, including schizophrenia, chronic fatigue, multiple sclerosis, attention deficit disorder, migraine and even fertility problems.)

Shopping Behaviors of Gluten-Free Consumers

Source: 2008 Understanding Gluten-Free Shoppers" survey
• 55% spend 30% or more on their grocery budget for gluten-free foods
• 68% shop at 3 or more stores/month to find gluten-free foods
• When asked if they could find the same products at all the following stores
where would they most prefer to shop for gluten-free foods:
- 71% grocery store (where shop for most of family's groceries)
- 9% Independent Natural or Health Food Store
- 8 % Mass merchandiser (e.g., Wal-Mart, Target)
- 7% Natural Food Chain (e.g. Whole Foods)
- 5% Club Store (e.g., Sam's, Costco)
- 0.1% Drug store
• Product selection is the most important factor followed by low price, convenience, good service, close to where they live, knowledgeable staff available to help, friendliness of staff and close to where they work.
• The majority (71%) agreed it was hard to find good tasting gluten-free foods.
• More than half (57%) have tried 10 or more new gluten-free products in the last year.

Merchandising Options

Retailers face many challenges when deciding what type and how many gluten-free products to stock, as well as how to merchandise them. The gluten-free consumer wishes to have all the gluten-free products in one location, but this is not realistic for various reasons. Many retailers are using both an integrated and segregated approach to marketing gluten-free products.The segregated products are often featured within the natural/health food section or in an exclusive gluten-free section, but the majority of products like cereals, pasta, cookies, crackers, energy bars and snack foods are often integrated alongside mainstream counterparts. Placing gluten-free baking mixes and flours such as rice, tapioca and corn next to the wheat flour and other wheat-based mixes may not be a good idea: flour dust can be found on the outside of the package of the wheat-based products and could lead to cross-contamination.

The same goes for placing gluten-free flours in bulk bins, as the risk of cross-contamination is great. Many gluten-free consumers avoid the bakery department, so even placing wrapped gluten-free baked products here may not be the best location. On the other hand, with clear signage, carefully wrapped and labeled gluten-free products in the freezer section of the regular bakery can be an excellent option.

Gluten-free shoppers are one of the most informed and brand loyal consumers in the marketplace. Despite the challenges, there is a clear opportunity to win over the gluten-free consumer. With a little bit of effort and outreach, retailers can meet the needs of the gluten-free consumer and gain their trust Supermarkets must therefore provide accurate and detailed product information and labeling.

The gluten-free customer wants accurate product and ingredient information, recipes, opportunities to sample products and other information to maintain good health and improve the overall quality of life. After all, their health depends on knowing the product composition!

In-store or consulting registered dietitians are invaluable here as they can help develop educational resources, deliver various programs and train employees.

Other information about the market for gluten-free foods

The retail market for gluten-free foods and beverages is exploding as a result of multiple triggers. On the marketer side, big giants like Anheuser-Busch (the first one) or General Mills have introduced gluten-free product lines. On the consumer side, demand has been growing exponentially as sufferers of a wide variety of maladies (including celiac disease, autism, attention deficit disorder, irritated bowel syndrome, and MS) have come to believe a gluten-free diet will provide relief. Retailers are holding up their side too. Supermarkets' gluten-free marketing ranges from gluten-free product lists on their websites, to gluten-free private-label reformulations, to new gluten-free store sections. Even Governments are lending a hand as they finalize regulatory criteria for gluten-free labeling and, in some cases (Italy) finance the purchase of approved products for celiacs.

Major retailers have been quicker than giant food marketers in grasping the significance of gluten-free marketing. Whole Foods, America's largest health and natural foods retailer, first opened a gluten-free bakery facility approximately a decade ago. This began a trend that has shown retailers to be much more aggressive in targeting gluten-free consumers than their counterparts on the production side. Numerous retailers have created gluten-free sections and lists of products that are gluten-free. Specifically what the retailers are doing is verifying which of their private-label brands are prepared in a gluten-free manner and then notifying the consumer. This is expanding the number of gluten-free products in the marketplace.

"Evidence shows that the patients that comprise the celiac community are not willing to be passive sufferers. Their passion to live a full life without gluten must be considered one of the most powerful driving forces in the market," says Tatjana Meerman, publisher of Packaged Facts. "The fact that approximately three million Americans suffer from celiac disease does not mean that only they are buying gluten-free. Those others suffering maladies relieved by going gluten-free and their ensuing mobilization and activism have focused a great deal of attention on gluten-free eating."