Intro: In this issue, Kgaogelo Mamabolo investigates the growing demand for gluten-free products, the challenges that come with producing these products and visits South Africa’s biggest gluten-free manufacturing facility.

Text: Gluten, in its most basic form, is the “gluey” protein found in wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt. It provides the elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and keep its shape, resulting in a defined characteristic texture, strength and crumb structure. Gluten is also credited with giving baked goods like muffins and cakes their “fluffy” quality and moist texture.

Matthew Ballenden, founder and owner of Fresh Earth Bake House in Johannesburg, the biggest gluten-free manufacturing facility in the country, is of the opinion that demand for gluten-free products is on the rise. “The demand from our health shop in Emmerentia, where we originated, grew immensely and that spurred us to going into a bigger facility in November 2013. Initially when we started in October 2010 we had a small bakery behind the food store where we incubated the product and, after much funding and planning, we have formed retail partnerships with Dis-Chem and Pick ‘n Pay.”

According to Ballenden, the demand is partly from the growing number of coeliac diagnoses, gluten intolerant and/or allergic people as well as a need for healthier alternatives.

Coeliac disease causes the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine when gluten is eaten, which can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies like iron.

“Consuming gluten-free products can also help with digestive health and weight management, although it is no quick fix. It would prove futile to consume many calories and then have gluten-free bread in the hope of losing weight,” he says. “This is one of the major misconceptions when dealing with gluten-free products, another being that they don’t taste as good as products containing gluten.

“After many years of travelling the world doing research, finding the technology and linking myself with the right people to pass on relevant information to me, I can say we have found the right combination of formulation and method to create the best bread from rice flour as a base.”

Formulation challenges

Naturally, when gluten is removed from formulations, it means that taste and mouthfeel are compromised. To overcome these challenges, the doughs and batters of gluten-free products require a blend of functional ingredients for baking performance.

The dough also usually requires lower baking temperatures for a longer time than baking conventional items. Additionally, water absorption, mixing times and speeds as well as dough handling change.

Common problems encountered with gluten-free bakery products include reduced volume; lack of an even cell structure as well as a dry, crumbly, grainy texture.

“What we have opted to do is not buy in our formulations, but rather formulate everything from scratch. We make various formulations for biscuits, bagels, vegan white bread, muffin mixes etc. And our production line begins with these formulas being blended,” he states.

Ingredients listed on Fresh Earth Bake House product labels include sugar, rice flour, maize flour, tapioca flour, whey powder and hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose.

Ballenden explains that tapioca flour (starch) is mostly used to improve eating and visual qualities. A resistant starch like rice and/or maize flour is used to enhance the nutritional value of the products while maintaining a desirable taste and texture.

“We want people to enjoy the products, have the same value taste and not become neurotic about their gluten-free status. The idea is provide consumers with a different yet delicious taste.”

He points out that adapting the plant floor to make gluten-free products is another manufacturing challenge. “Gluten-free dough becomes very sticky and gummy when wet, which can pose a handling problem. Many gluten-free flours also absorb more water than regular flours.”

Like Ballenden, most facilities use an extrusion process to portion and deposit as it can handle both loose and stiff doughs. During depositing, these doughs tend to entrain air (trap it in) and stick to equipment surfaces.

Private label production

“Starting a gluten-free facility from scratch is a big challenge, as we had to move from a small uncertified bakery to a full production line, which will soon be certified and comply with the highest food safety standards,” he says. “Our aim is to become the go-to facility for big bakeries which are interested in producing a gluten-free line. We have the capacity to manufacture private label gluten-free goods for commercial mainstream bakeries, retailers, restaurants as well as catering businesses.

For more information, contactMatthew Ballenden of Fresh Earth Bake House on 011 646 4404, 011 434 5261or +2782 894 9575 or email matthew@freshearth.co.za.

PULL QUOTE: “I see the market moving further towards a mainstream repositioning of gluten-free, as has already been seen with previously niche categories like Fairtrade, organic and meat-free foods. Placing gluten-free bread alongside regular breads, for example, would open up the market to people who may not have any intolerance or allergen issues, but who are seeking alternatives they perceive to be healthier.” – Steve Osborn, business innovation manager at Leatherhead Food Research

Title: The rise of gluten-free

  • Australia and Brazil are expected to maintain their positions as the largest gluten-free markets until 2018.
  • Europe accounted for one-third of global market volume share in 2012, with the UK being the largest consumers of gluten-free products.
  • Bakery and confectionery products are expected to be the fastest growing gluten-free product segments.
  • According to Markets and Markets Analysis, sales of gluten-free products in the US are expected to grow by a compound annual growth rate of 10.2% to $5.5-billion by 2015 and $6.2-million by 2018.