There’s no shortage of interest in “free from” foods. One might attribute this uptick in sales to an increased prevalence of common food allergies like peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish, as well as intolerances like gluten and lactose.
While these shoppers’ needs represent the core of the free-from market, this is only half the story. U.S. consumers are packing their shopping carts with free-from foods for a variety of reasons. In one recent survey, the top reasons to buy gluten-free foods, for instance, included “it’s better for my overall health” (38%), “it’s more natural” (32%), “for weight loss” (25%) and “for more energy” (20%) (1).
Since many “free from” buyers are shopping the category because the want to, not because they have to, the bar is set even higher for companies to improve upon the taste, nutrition and selection of products. Here’s how next-generation free-from foods are breaking new ground in the natural market.
A Whole New World
Experts say that developments in food technology and sourcing have been far from stagnant in the “free-from” category. According to Amy Lotker, owner and head of sales and marketing at Better For You Foods, LLC, Delray Beach, FL, new sanitation processes in her production facility “have contributed to the ability to safely produce gluten-free foods in the same facility producing whole wheat products, without cross contamination.”
This is a huge deal, since airborne food allergens and gluten must be contained and kept away from “free-from” foods. Historically, companies had to use distinct lines, and often distinct production plants, to ensure this segregation. Using the same certified facility without cross contamination, therefore, represents a large step forward.
Other ways production is changing is with ingredients sourcing. Lotker says more and more farmers that produce free-from materials are also converting to organic and non-GMO practices, making companies like hers better able to meet shoppers’ interest in all three of these clean label claims.
Expanded global sourcing is also opening the door for foods to be made with new innovative ingredients alongside customary ones, says Miguel Garza, CEO of Siete Family Foods, Austin, TX. He states, “Traditional recipes are being transformed with previously unused ingredients while still holding true to culturally significant flavors.”
One example comes from Michael Warshower, managing director of WIBE Natural Inc., Miami, FL, who says that new global sourcing opportunities have contributed to using anywhere in the world to grow quality ingredients. “As an example, we are introducing to the market the first-ever gluten-free, lactose-free, soy-free teff drink, of which the finest teff grain is sent from Ethiopia to Spain, monitored, controlled and then transformed into a delicious drink, shipped to the United States. The same case goes for our baobab drink, which is made with African baobab and European rice in Spain.”
Introducing Gluten and Specialty Diets: Science and Solutions
With consumers’ increased interest in foods for sensitive diets, WholeFoods Magazine is debuting an online column this month called “Gluten and Specialty Diets: Science and Solutions,” written by best-selling author and nutrition expert Jaqui Karr, CGP, CSN, CVD. Each month, Karr will give retailers a unique and fact-based perspective on topics related to gluten-free foods and special diets.
Find her column at WholeFoodsMagazine.com/Columns/Gluten-Specialty-Diets.
The impact of an expanding global supply chain isn’t just a one-way street. Tara Blythe, director of development and communications at Kamut, Missoula, MT, says, “with Kamut, it’s interesting because the vast majority of what we grow in North America predominantly goes to Europe—Italy, in particular.”
Lotker agrees that the farming and production of unique ingredients worldwide—like ancient grains and sprouted grains—is more prevalent these days, “which contributes to our ability to more economically produce products that are free from genetically modified grains—and we are therefore able to produce gluten free, ancient grains and sprouted grain products at a lower cost to consumers.” Clearly, this is a win–win for the market.
Another interesting cost saver is tied to shelf life expansion. According to Dave Rosenberg, food category manager at NOW Foods, Bloomingdale, IL, “There have been significant advancements in food technology to extend shelf life and replace ingredients that are considered common allergens that are unique to the market.”
For instance, Rosenberg says that an organic flax seed meal from his company (NOW Real Food Organic Golden Flax Seed Meal) uses fresh fill technology, which he describes as “a natural blend of carbon dioxide and nitrogen that displaces oxygen in the bag to maximize flavor and freshness.” This is key because flaxseed tends to go rancid quickly. Since his firm has figured out a way to increase stability, it’s even more interesting as a possible egg replacement in baked applications for manufacturers and consumers alike. “This product is a great example of using food technology to prolong shelf life as well as utilizing a unique gluten-free product as an egg replacement,” states Rosenberg.
Some unmet needs in sourcing still must be met, however. According to Paula Dempsey, owner of Dempsey Bakery, Little Rock, AR, it’s been a challenge to source some bulk ingredients that she insists not only be gluten free but also soy and nut free. For instance, Dempsey says 50-lb bags of mainstream baking supplies are easy to come by, but many gluten-free flours still only come in 25-lb sizes—a less economical option.
In addition, she says many local wholesale warehouses do not carry specialty ingredients, “so everything has to be shipped in, which makes it very expensive,” she explains.
As the market continues to expand, the hope is that these needs will be filled in the future.
Goal: Healthier Options
Manufacturers are not just searching the global supply chain for new ingredients for the sake of being novel; they are often looking for new ways to boost nutrition while still keeping “free from” promises.
This is especially important in light of the common misconception that foods free from certain ingredients like gluten are inherently healthier. This is true of some products, but not all. “[Mainstream] retail gluten-free products can definitely be no healthier than other products. Generally, they have just as many preservatives and artificial ingredients as other foods,” Dempsey states.
Many natural brands are doing just the opposite; they are making it a point to build in extra nutrition. “Overall, the food industry has taken on a greater share of responsibility in providing healthier and more nutritious products,” states Rosenberg. “This is evident as an increasing number of manufacturers are focused on removing artificial ingredients from their products and are moving to clean label with more natural ingredients.”
Kimberlee Ullner, president of 1-2-3 Gluten Free, Inc., Orange, OH, says natural companies use more nutritious grains, such as substituting brown rice flour for white. In addition, Ullner uses an example from her company: even baking mixes can be fortified with added nutrients like iron, B vitamins and calcium. “This has absolutely no affect on the taste or texture, but ‘sneaks’ in the added vitamins and minerals. 1-2-3 Gluten Free was the first national company to do this and we’ve seen other companies follow suit,” she explains.
Quick Quiz: Which Ancient Grains Are Gluten Free?
Ancient grains are in strong demand, but which are appropriate for those on a gluten-free diet?
According to Paul Wong, vice president of research and development at Daiya Foods, six ancient grains do not contain gluten: quinoa, amaranth, millet, teff, chia and sorghum.
Adds Dave Rosenberg, food category manager at NOW Foods, “Many of these ancient grains and flours work well when combined with each other to give flavor and texture that are similar to their conventional counterparts.”
Another company making nutritious free-from choices is Daiya Foods. Paul Wong, vice president of research and development at Daiya Foods, Vancouver, BC, Canada, believes that in addition to nutrition, food technologists formulating gluten-free foods have to worry about function, since gluten traps the carbon dioxide from yeast to create the cell structure in bread. Wong says his company uses rice flour, sorghum flour, psyllium and xanthan gum for nutrition and function.
Before proceeding, it’s noteworthy that some grains appropriate for sensitive diets are highly nutritious in their own right. No fortification required. Such grains include spelt and khorasan wheat (branded as Kamut), which may be appropriate for some wheat-sensitive, non-Celiac individuals (with a physician’s okay). This could include as many as 10–25% of the population, says Blythe, who notes, “Many people are seeking out alternatives because they realize they just don’t feel great after eating a lot of modern white wheat products.”Studies suggest that Kamut has antioxidant properties and supports healthy inflammation levels in individuals, and supports balanced blood sugar levels, cardiovascular health, digestive health and more.
Meanwhile, according to information from Purity Foods, spelt also offers anti-inflammatory properties and may “contribute to longevity by supporting our bones, joints and cartilage” as well as balanced blood sugar levels.
Companies are using grains such as these as the primary ingredient in pastas, breads and more to deliver nutrition all on their own.
Almost Like the Real Thing, Baby
A big part of making wheat-, dairy- or egg-free products successful is manipulating ingredients so that they taste and “behave” like the real thing. Companies are getting better and better at making the magic happen, executing a quality free-from product that not only satisfies the target demographic, but also appeals to those without food sensitivities.
“This is one of our founding principles,” says Ullner. “We work hard to ensure that our products are enjoyed by everyone.”
Dempsey is of a similar mindset. “When I created this bakery, I made a commitment to myself and my family that if I could not create foods that could compete with the ‘normal’ foods we were used to, I would not open,” she states.
Accomplishing this feat at Better For You Foods is about using naturally gluten-free sprouted ancient grains in its froze pizzas. Lotker states, “The flavors of these pizzas appeal to consumers beyond those with gluten allergies or sensitivities because they feature a hearty crust made with sprouted ancient grains, a savory tomato sauce and high-quality toppings, including uncured pepperoni, four-cheese blend and zesty Mediterranean.”
Ultimately, if it doesn’t taste good, people will not buy the product, no matter how healthy, so that’s always a concern.
—Kimberlee Ullner, 1-2-3 Gluten Free, Inc
Wong says that in the dairy-alternative category, mimicking textures, mouth feel and flavors is the biggest challenge. To accomplish this, the firm developed a methodology to measure the texture profiles of real products, “but the most importantly, we developed and trained a sensory taste panel to be able to provide feedback on taste and texture attributes,” he states. This strategy has helped the company bring to market dairy-free cheeses that melt, for instance, with a pea protein-based recipe.
Another unique idea comes from Follow Your Heart, which now offers a vegan egg made from an algal protein. The taste and texture mimic that of a real egg though it is 100% plant based, and can be used to replace eggs in cookies, muffins, cakes and omelets.
Meanwhile, NOW Foods has found a way to replace butter 1:1. Says Rosenberg, “Our Ellyndale Organics Coconut Infusions Non-Dairy Butter Flavor tastes and spreads like a creamy butter. This product is great for vegans or those who have a dairy intolerance, as well as consumers searching for a healthier replacement to butter.”
Companies have begun using some innovative flours in their snacks and baked goods that are highly nutritious and free of gluten and common allergens. Which up-and-coming flours are likely to make an appearance on your shelves?
Dempsey says her firm uses a variety of unique gluten- and allergen-free flours in its line, from nutritious sorghum and millet in breads and crackers to coconut flour in its grain-free products. Coconut flour is said to be a good source of fiber, protein and healthy fats and is low glycemic. Dempsey’s company also uses rice, arrowroot, potato starch and some tapioca. “We started out with no tapioca but we have so many customers that have a problem with potato so we switched a bread recipe to use tapioca instead of potato,” she states.
Meanwhile, Lotker says Better For You Foods, LLC incorporates several gluten-free ancient grain flours like sprouted brown rice, millet, quinoa and chia flours. “Another gluten-free flour we favor is made with buckwheat, which contributes a healthy whole grain flavor and increased fiber compared to white rice and wheat flours,” she explains.
Garza says his company prefers grain-free flours like almond and cassava root flours. “These grain-free flours tend to be more nutrient-dense than most grain-based flours. Almond flour is protein-rich, while cassava flour is packed with a wide variety of vitamins and minerals,” he explains.
Other trendy flours and proteins, says Wong, are pulse derived from pea, beans, lentils and chickpeas. “These contain protein, fiber, complex carbohydrates and have a low glycemic index. 2016 is considered the Year of the Pulse,” he explains. “Technology has advanced so there are now novel plant ingredients that are much more functional in developing new food products.”
In fact, pulse ingredients are so important in the market today that one group has created a “Made with Pulses” seal so that shoppers can more easily identify foods that use these healthy ingredients (see page 60).
One last unique flour for your radar is green banana flour, which Rosenberg says is “prebiotic, gluten-free, allergy-friendly flour” that can be used in a 1:1 replacement for all-purpose flour. “It has a naturally pleasant, sweet mouth feel without an overwhelming banana flavor.”
Free From? Prove It!
The reaction when a person with a food allergy or intolerance ingests a problematic ingredient can range from uncomfortable to life threatening. For this reason, shoppers don’t want to play around with foods that aren’t void of exactly what they say they are. Stocking items that are third-party certified to be “free from” is an important way your store can distinguish your offerings from the crowd.
For instance, several companies interviewed for this piece are certified gluten free by the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG)’s Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO). In addition, supplier verification and production line sanitation is critical. Dempsey states, “We research every ingredient used and have statements from the manufacturers for gluten, soy and nuts. When we are baking egg and dairy free, we have procedures for cleaning and use specific containers and trays.”
Lotker says that her company’s 40,000-ft2 facility is not only certified by GFCO, but her firm also chooses to go a step beyond when producing its gluten-free and whole wheat pizzas in the same place without cross-contamination. “By running separate production lines, sanitizing, swabbing and using a third-party agency to verify our allergen free products—we exceed the GFCO’s mandate of no more than 10 parts per million. Our high standards allow us to confidently produce gluten-free products that are trusted to be safe by consumers, retailers and our private label partners,” she states.
Protocols are also key for analytical testing. Retailers definitely want to stock products whose manufacturers test for authenticity, quality and allergens before adding them into batches. Says Rosenberg of the process at NOW Foods, “We thoroughly test each ingredient to make sure it is free of pathogens and we even conduct identity testing on ingredients to make sure that they’re 100% of what they’re supposed to be.”
Likewise, Wong says Daiya Foods-invested in an in-house allergen analytical lab to test for dairy, egg and soy. “All of our products are tested prior to being released for shipping,” he states.
Ullner adds that ingredient testing is critical, but so is end-product testing “to ensure that they really are free of what we say on our packaging.”
While certifications and procedures may involve some costs, companies say it is well worth it to show consumers they are serious about quality. Says Garza, “As a small company, establishing trust and credibility with consumers is imperative. If our family [with a lot of food sensitivities] wouldn’t eat it, we won’t make it.” WF
1. “How Food Manufacturers are Making Gluten-Free Products Tastier and Healthier,” Nov. 18, 2015, www.ift.org/newsroom/news-releases/2015/november/18/gluten-free.aspx, accessed
Published in WholeFoods Magazine September 2016