It was not long after the turn of the century that food formulators were introduced to the concept of “gluten-free.” Today, gluten-free is one of the most frequent and desired package claims. And according to Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md., the market for gluten-free foods and beverages continues to grow faster than anticipated.

The category reached $4.2 billion in 2012, reflecting a compound annual growth rate of 28 percent from 2008 to 2012, according to the market research firm. And a 2012 Packaged Facts consumer survey showed that 18 percent of adults were buying or consuming foods tagged as gluten-free, up from 15 percent in 2010. Research further shows that the share of gluten-free consumers who are buying more of these foods has skyrocketed, and the share of total shoppers who are buying more gluten-free foods has doubled.

Celiac disease

Gluten-free foods are necessary for those who suffer from the autoimmune disease known as celiac disease. However, the conviction that gluten-free products are generally healthier appears to be the top motivation for consumers of these products, according to Packaged Facts.

Gluten is a protein found in all forms of wheat as well as other select grains. Gluten has long been appreciated by bakers for its ability to retain leavening gases and provide structure in bakery products. The problem is that gluten can cause an immunologically toxic reaction in humans who have celiac disease. In such individuals, the body’s response to ingested gluten damages the mucosal surface of the small intestine. This, in turn, interferes with the absorption of nutrients, and in some cases, water and bile salts. If left untreated, damage to the small bowel can be chronic and life-threatening, causing an increased risk of associated disorders – both nutritional and immune-related.

Often when food scientists think of avoiding gluten in a product formulation, they think of wheat flour only. However, there are many hidden sources of gluten in the food ingredients business, and even the slightest amount in a food product wreaks havoc on a celiac. The only treatment for the disease is lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet. When gluten is removed from the diet, the small intestine starts to heal and overall health usually improves.

Celiac disease did not just surface after the turn of the century, it’s been around forever. But recognizing celiac disease can be difficult because some symptoms are similar to those of other diseases, according to the National Institutes of Health Celiac Disease Awareness Campaign, Bethesda, Md., which claims that the disease affects about one in 141 people in the United States. Its cause is unknown and it can appear at any time in a person’s life and stays forever.

Increasing diagnoses of celiac disease and food allergies; growing awareness of these ailments among patients, healthcare practitioners and the general public; the availability of more products, and better ones, across a range of product categories; and a trend that has friends and family members eating gluten-free to support loved ones are among the factors stimulating continuing expansion in this market, according to Packaged Facts. While growth rates will moderate over the next five years in the wake of market expansion, Packaged Facts projects that US sales of gluten-free foods and beverages will exceed $6.6 billion by 2017.

Sources of gluten

The good news for meat and poultry processors is that fresh meat does not contain gluten. For gluten to be present, it must be added to the product, which typically occurs when incorporating a brine/marinade, inclusion of a binder/texturant or from an applied breading/batter. Formulators must be especially leery of these potential hidden sources of gluten: caramel color, flavors (natural and artificial), unidentified starch, modified food starch, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, hydrolyzed plant protein, texturized vegetable protein, malt, soy sauce, maltodextrin, spices, seasonings and the many ingredients classified as binders, fillers and extenders.

Choosing gluten-free ingredients and confirming so through proper documentation allows for the increasingly popular gluten-free claim. Recognizing this trend, Oscar Mayer has started flagging gluten-free on products that qualify.

“The gluten-free diet is growing in popularity and Oscar Mayer wants to provide consumers with choices at the grocery store,” says Heather Buettner, senior director of new product development, Kraft Foods Group Inc., Northfield, Ill. “Our social media listening revealed that conversations around gluten in cold cuts and hot dogs are up more than 250 percent vs. a year ago. With an entire line of gluten-free cold cuts, hot dogs and bacon to choose from, Oscar Mayer provides consumers with a wide range of affordable choices they can feel good about.”

Starch and fiber options

Brines and marinades add value to many raw, whole-muscle proteins. They are all about product enhancement — from increasing yield to improving eating quality. They can also increase visual appeal during the shelf-life of the fresh product, and after cooking, help the product stay juicy.

Most industrial marinades are composed of water, salt and phosphate, all of which are free of gluten. Often, they include other ingredients that assist with water binding or add flavor. These ingredients have the potential to contain gluten.

Many of the ingredients used in brines and marinades are also used in processed meat products. This includes starches, which bind moisture, provide heat and shear stability, extend shelf-life, improve freeze/thaw stability and enhance texture. There are many effective gluten-free starches available.

A starch’s amylose content is an important consideration when formulating meat products, as amylose content influences its gelatinization temperature and the product’s final texture. When the amylose-containing starch granules swell during heating, the amylose is solubilized and leaches into solution. These molecules eventually aggregate and set to a gel, also known as retrogradation. This process releases some water and can lead to a firmer or meatier texture in the final product, which may or may not be desirable, depending on the product. This firmness, however, contributes to improved slicing performance.

Tapioca starch has a small amount of amylose, thereby producing a softer gel along with a less firm meat. Waxy maize starch has no amylose, producing an even softer texture. Such high-amylopectin starches provide for long-term water binding. Potato starch, on the other hand, has high amylose content, which can produce a firmer meat.

Processing conditions, such as temperature, are also a consideration. For example, for corn starch to fully gelatinize, it normally requires a much higher temperature (about 95˚C) than potato starch. Thus, a major advantage of potato starch over other gluten-free starches is that it will start to gelatinize at the same time the meat proteins are losing the most water and they are usually fully gelatinized between 72˚C and 76˚C, the same temperature range that most meats are cooked. Potato starches will cause the meat solution to thicken quickly on heating. Potato starches also have a low lipid and protein content and high water-binding capacity, all appealing attributes for meat applications.

Regardless of the starch type, it is critical that gelatinization temperature be reached during the heat treatment of the meat product. This is in order for the starch to achieve its full water-binding capacity and maintain stability in the system.

Select fiber ingredients have also been shown to assist in meat and poultry production. For example, a patented orange pulp-based fiber ingredient has the ability to tightly bind large amounts of oil and water.

“This gluten-free ingredient stabilizes and tightly binds free fat and water to reduce purge, drip loss and syneresis to improve quality, yields and profits,” says Brock Lundberg, vice president of technology, Fiberstar Inc., River Falls, Wis. “It can partially replace oil and fat in processed meat products to reduce costs and improve nutrition. Also, this fiber is unique in that it can replace phosphate salts, allowing for a more natural, clean label.

This citrus fiber allows for the development of gluten-free meatballs. “Meatballs often include wheat ingredients for texture and water binding,” Lundberg says. “We can achieve the same sensory attributes using our ingredient system based on citrus fiber, carrageenan and/or xanthan gum.

“We have another fiber system containing citrus fiber and soy protein isolate that helps meat processors replace up to 30 percent of the pork fat in meat pre-emulsions,” Lundberg says. Meat pre-emulsions are made as a base for use in products such as sausages and meat fillings. “Combined with soy protein isolate and other gluten-free ingredients, processors can achieve significant cost savings while improving the product’s nutrition.”

Breadings and batters

Meat- and poultry-based entrées and finger foods often rely on breadings and batters for flavor, crunch and overall eye appeal. Historically, wheat flour-based crumbs and flours have been used, but, of course, such coverings introduce gluten to the formulation. Thus, corn, potato, rice and soy flours are becoming more common.

“We offer a unique combination of pea and corn starches to make a gluten-free breading that works well on chicken nuggets,” says Chandani Perera, senior scientist, Roquette America, Geneva, Ill. “It provides a desirable crispiness that is better than what one gets with tapioca or rice.”

Crispy and crunchy is what consumers expect with breaded proteins. Many of today’s innovative encrusted proteins rely on larger granulation mixtures of different crumb types to develop unique textures and visual appeal. For example, panko, which is made from wheat bread baked by passing an electric current through the dough in order to make bread without crust, has an airier texture compared to most other bread-crumb types, which allows for a crispier finish.

The Bunge Ingredient Innovation Center, Bradley, Ill., recently developed gluten-free rice panko bread crumbs for both foodservice and industrial manufacturing.

“At an industrial-scale food processing evaluation pilot plant, we used the crumbs on both chicken and fish,” says Brian Anderson, director of innovation for Bunge Milling. “The process consisted of a pre-dust, batter, breading and par-fry, followed by a freezing step. The frozen food was then either baked or fried. Our testing confirmed that the gluten-free rice panko bread crumbs provided superior performance over wheat crumbs.”

With so many gluten-free ingredients available, meat and poultry processors are well-poised to participate in the booming gluten-free business.