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Science rises to the gluten-free challenge

By Stephen Daniells , 10-Sep-2009
Last updated on 10-Sep-2009 at 11:51 GMT2009-09-10T11:51:20Z

The increasing prevalence of coeliac disease is driving innovation, and the growth in the size of the market is boosting R&D investment, but the ideal gluten-free product is still not on supermarket shelves.

Removing gluten poses technological challenges because the protein possesses unique properties which are vital for both the retention of gas during fermentation, and the preservation of moisture levels in the dough.

“From a technological point of view, replacement with gluten-free flours is not a trivial task,” wrote Professor Elke Arendt from the Department of Food and Nutritional Science at University College Cork recently in the journal Food Microbiology.

Talking to FoodNavigator, Prof Arendt said that there are two reasons why gluten-free formulations have not moved forward as quickly as they could: Firstly, the market is dominated by relatively small players; and secondly, gluten-free formulations are extremely hard to patent.

Sarah Sleet, chief executive of British charity Coeliac UK, has a different view. “Our conversations with specialist manufacturers indicated it is less about patents, and more about the market size and therefore their ability to invest” she said.

Since it was valued at a modest $580m in 2004, the global market has grown at an average annual rate of 29 per cent and last year was worth $1.56bn, according to Packaged Facts. It could be worth as much as $2.6bn by 2012.

“As the market has grown, the ability of companies to invest [in R&D] has grown,” Sleet told this website. “And the arrival of new entrants has driven competition.”

“Basically what we want is for the specialist products to be the same as mainstream products,” she added.

“We’ve talked to McDonald's about gluten-free,” said Sleet, “and the reason they don’t offer a gluten-free bun is not because they are not interested, it is because they feel they cannot get a good gluten-free bun.”

Current commercially available gluten-free breads are mainly based on starch, and are “characterised by low quality, exhibiting poor crumb and crust characteristics as well as poor mouth feel and flavour”, wrote the Cork-based researchers in Food Microbiology.

Progress is being made. Indeed, a brand called Genius was recently launched in the UK to much acclaim. Exclusive to retailer Tesco, the bread is formulated with water, potato starch, cornflour, vegetable oil, tapioca starch, egg white, rice bran, cellulose, xanthan gum as a stabiliser, sugar, yeast, rice flour, salt.

The sourdough potential

Prof Arendt is touting sourdough as a potential solution. “Sourdough has a lot of potential, particularly from a flavour and structure perspective,” she said. “The strains used are also anti-fungal and that can extend the shelf-life of bread without the need of chemical preservatives.”

But employing sourdoughs requires a detailed knowledge of the strains and starter cultures for each grain. Sorghum sourdough would need a specific strain, like Lactobacillus reuteri or Lactobacillus fermentum, while a buckwheat flour would require other starter cultures.

“I have great hopes for sourdough in gluten-free bread,” said Prof Arendt.

Baking in nutritional goodness

The nutritional content of gluten-free foods is an increasing area of concern. Many of these products are characterised by reduced nutrient contents. In most cases, such products are not fortified and are poorer in B vitamins, iron, folate, and dietary fibre than gluten-containing formulations. Gluten-free foods also fall beyond the realm of fortification programmes, although Sleet acknowledges that manufacturers have looked at this issue on a voluntary basis.

One area showing promise is the use of alternative or ‘ancient’ grains, such as amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, brown rice, sorghum, and teff. Only recently, scientists from the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University in New York reported that the use of such alternative flour sources could improve intakes of protein, iron, calcium and fibre (Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics).

Additionally, Canadian researchers from Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development reported that crackers made from the flour of chickpeas may contain between 3 to 6 times more iron than existing products (Food Research International).

Scientists from France’s CNRS also reported that a combination of buckwheat flour and guar gum could lead to the gluten-free French bread with “improved quality attributes” (Journal of Food Science).

However, issues with ancient grains relate to supply. “The grains are very expensive,” said Prof Arendt. “They are not mass produced.”

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