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Can I get that gluten-free?

The demand for gluten-free food continues to grow

April 17, 2015

If Tolá Oyewole eats the wrong thing—even a tiny bite—her skin immediately breaks out in a terrible rash. She had eczema when she was a baby, and while most other people outgrow it, for her it never ended.

For a long time, she didn’t know why. Then a few years ago she saw a new doctor. She came in with a particularly bad breakout and he ran some tests that offered answers: She was diagnosed with severe gluten intolerance.

Oyewole, who now works at Cargill, was told to see a nutritionist and change her diet radically. She has been gluten-free ever since. Regular pasta, bread, beer and a laundry list of other products containing gluten are now strictly off-limits for her. inpage-tola-oyewoleWhen Tolá Oyewole was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance, it meant a complete lifestyle change. “When you have this lifestyle, you have to cook,” she said as she prepared a gluten-free meal at home.

“It’s hard,” she professes. “I was a big bread and pasta person. You can still eat rice and potatoes to get your starch, but you get tired of eating the same thing all the time.”

She isn’t alone in wanting more options. Gluten-free diets are on the rise. According to the market research firm Nielsen, Americans alone spent $23.3 billion on gluten-free food in 2014. That’s up 16.4% from the previous year and more than twice as much as in 2010.

“We’ve had tremendous growth in the gluten-free market over the last five years,” says Jeff Casper, product development director for Cargill Oils & Shortenings. “For those who must adhere to a gluten-free diet for medical reasons, it’s not just a trend—it’s a reality that’s here to stay.”

Powerful proteins

Gluten is what makes bread bread. It makes raw dough bouncy and elastic, and gives baked goods their substantial, yet fluffy essence.

“Gluten gives dough the ability to retain gas during proofing and baking, resulting in a light product with other desirable textures, like chewiness,” said Casper. “It also helps retain moisture during baking, so you end up with a product that stays moist.”

To food scientists, gluten is defined as two specific proteins, explains Casper: glutenin and gliadin. Both are found in three main grains; wheat, barley and rye. “It’s a protein with very unique properties that give baked goods their desirable appearance and texture.”

Desirable as it may be for texture, gluten can be harmful to those who have celiac disease. The disease, which is thought to affect one in every 100 people worldwide, is an autoimmune disorder that destroys the villi, the tiny, finger-like protrusions in the small intestine that help people absorb the nutrients in their food. If left untreated, celiac disease will not only cause patients to shed weight and feel awful, it can also lead to other serious health problems.

Celiac patients are not the only people to benefit from a gluten-free diet. For every person with celiac disease, there are an estimated six others with milder forms of gluten intolerance, says Casper.

What causes gluten intolerance isn’t well understood, although scientists know it’s not an auto-immune response like celiac disease, and it isn’t a classic allergy, either. The only known treatment for celiac disease and gluten intolerance is a strict, lifelong gluten-free diet.
Remarkably, however, the gluten-free lifestyle has now also caught on with millions of other people who don’t have a diagnosed condition.

“A lot of people are going gluten-free for lifestyle reasons,” says Rachel Begun, a registered dietitian-nutritionist and gluten expert based in Boulder, Colorado. “They’ve heard that it’s a weight loss diet or that it’s a healthier way to live. But there is actually no scientific evidence to show that removing gluten from the diet alone leads to weight loss or better health.”

Cargill’s Casper has spent several years studying gluten, and co-authored Gluten-Free Baked Products, a book he wrote with fellow food scientist William Atwell, who spent 12 years at Cargill developing bakery products for customers.

“If there’s no physiological problem, there’s no good reason to avoid gluten,” Casper says. “But there is a growing demand for these foods, and Cargill can help customers improve their gluten-free products, both from a nutritional standpoint and from a textural standpoint.”

Finding the right formula

Making gluten-free foods taste and act like their gluten-filled counterparts isn’t easy, especially in baked goods, where gluten imparts a very unique and hard to replicate property: chewiness.

“The scientific term is viscoelastic behavior,” says Casper. “Think of bread dough: It’s got viscosity, but it’s also got elasticity. It’s thick and it holds a lot of water, but it’s also like a rubber band—you can stretch it and it’ll snap back. There’s a balance between those two properties that gluten provides.”

Casper explains that when you remove gluten, food makers have to be thoughtful about how they replace it and how that protein functions in their product. There is no one magic ingredient that can mimic the functionality of gluten, so often food makers assemble multiple ingredients to get to the same end point. “Basically, you’re taking a different path to get there,” he said.

The problem is that that path doesn’t always lead to a better place.

“A lot of gluten-free food is just not very good,” said Oyewole. “Especially when you know what cake and fluffy bread actually tastes like.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Cargill can help customers formulate gluten-free alternatives for their traditional bakery products. It has developed gluten-free baking bases for breads, cookies, cakes and muffins that can be customized based on food makers’ specific needs.

“When I first found out I was gluten intolerant, I thought it was the end of the world,” said Oyewole. “It helps to know that there are people who actually make good-tasting gluten-free food, and you don’t have to eat like a rabbit for the rest of your days. It’s not the end of the world.”