The gluten-free food market was worth almost $1.6bn last year, according to Packaged Facts, and saw a compound annual growth rate of 28 per cent over four years.
Sufferers of celiac disease have to avoid all gluten in their diet, but diagnosis is not the only factor. Other sectors of the population, such as those who have self-diagnosed wheat or gluten intolerance or who believe gluten-free to be a healthier way of eating, are strong drivers.
But against this backdrop of popularity, there have been concerns that some gluten-free products on the market made with rice, corn and potato flour and xanthan or guar gum to improve texture have sub-optimal levels of essential nutrients.
ConAgra Mills set out to develop flour that has good nutritional properties by tapping its portfolio of naturally gluten-free ancient grains, like amaranth, quinoa, sorghum, millet and teff.
A spokesperson told FoodNavigator-USA.com at IFT in Anaheim last week that the individual ancient grain flours can be used to make gluten-free products, but the product quality tends to be lower.
The company therefore developed a proprietary blend of grains and tapioca starch, intended to provide both good nutrition and good product characteristics.
The result, called Eagle Mills gluten-free all-purpose multigrain flour, was launched at IFT. Also containing tapioca starch, it can be used in products including pan bread, tortillas, muffins, snacks, coatings and extruded cereals.
The unveiling of the new flour is timely since the Harvard Health Letter drew attention to the nutritional issues of gluten-free eating just this month, and criticising manufacturers for profiting from making good tasting gluten-free products that were nutritionally poor.
Melinda Dennis, nutrition coordinator at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Celiac Center, said people should look to “unconventional but nutritionally well-rounded substitutes” for gluten-containing grains.
Dennis dubbed the ancient grains amaranth, buckwheat, teff, millet, quinoa and sorghum the “super six” because of their high nutritional value.
Even outside the gluten-free niche, ancient grains have been attracting attention amongst healthy eaters. While they have been staples for civilizations around the world for millennia, in the West, they have fallen off the menu in favour of wheat and barley.
Amaranth, for example, has been eaten in Mexico since the time of the Aztecs; and in Ethiopia, teff is the main ingredient in the stable fermented flatbread injera.
In its recent report The US Market for Whole and Other Grains, Datamonitor said ancient grains have become more popular recently due to more attention to their nutritional value – but more education is needed on how to cook them properly.