Solving the gluten-free technology issue

Coeliac UK CEO Sarah Sleet highlights some of the biggest challenges facing gluten-free manufacture.

14 February 2019

An estimated 1% of the UK population are thought to suffer from coeliac disease. They represent only a fraction, however, of the people – around 8%, according to Mintel – following a gluten-free diet due to non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy or other health reasons and lifestyle choices. That figure in turn is about half the number of UK households who avoid gluten-containing products (15%).

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that gluten-free goods have become an increasingly significant category. Globally, Euromonitor expects the market’s value to reach $4.7bn next year.

A growing number of companies have entered the playing field, as mainstream brands move into what was until very recently a niche area for relatively small enterprises.

But there are several hurdles for businesses across the spectrum to overcome, as Sarah Sleet, chief executive of Coeliac UK, tells Food Spark.

“There are still a couple of critical issues,” she says. “One is around cost, particularly when it comes to bread and flours, which are still around four times more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts. A lot of that is about the food technology that sits behind it.”

Manufacturing gluten-free bread is a particularly tricky area. Without gluten, which gives bread not only its structure but the mouthfeel that is typically associated with a loaf, the ingredient list swells rapidly, as a combination of substitutes are forced to take its place – not ideal in these clean-label times. Consistency, which is of course essential in large-scale manufacture, becomes less reliable.

“That all has a knock-on effect in terms of cost, because you’ve got wastage issues and some of those ingredients are relatively expensive,” says Sleet.

The complexity of the gluten problem has surprised even some of the UK’s largest bread manufacturers, including Warburtons, which has made a conscious effort to increase its gluten-free range.

To address the technological issue as well as other key challenges facing gluten-avoiding people, Coeliac UK announced at the end of January that it had partnered with Innovate UK to fund a number of initiatives to the tune of £750k.

Tech talk

In selecting which propositions to back, Coeliac UK and Innovate UK were looking for research in three areas: diagnostic techniques, digital care and food technology.

“Stimulating innovation in our food and health sectors are crucial components of the government’s industrial strategy,” said Dr Kath Mackay, director of Ageing Society, Health and Nutrition at Innovate UK. “By working with Coeliac UK we will be able to offer funding that results in improved quality of life for people with this condition and support and stimulate our vibrant health care and food technology sectors.”

Among the projects chosen were Nonacus, which is creating a less invasive test for coeliac disease, and Cievert, which is developing software to help coeliac sufferers manage their illness.

image credit: Getty Images

Most interesting for the food industry, however, is the research proposed by Nandi Proteins. In collaboration with gluten-free manufacturer Genius Foods, bakery ingredient distributor AB Mauri and agronomy tech company Agrii, it aims to bring three new plant proteins to market for use in gluten-free bread.

The idea is to replace components derived from egg and dairy sources with proteins made from faba beans, naked oats and rapeseed cake (the leftover solid after the plant has been pressed for oil).

“The choice of the protein sources, essentially they are all byproducts of existing processes or crops that are not fully utilised,” Neil Crabb, chairman of Nandi Proteins, tells Food Spark, adding that his company hopes to turn them into something more valuable and useful than animal feed.

“It’s quite a virtuous circle,” comments Sleet. “It cuts down on food miles as you’ve got these ingredients that you can grow here – a lot of gluten-free ingredients have to be imported, things like rice flour, etc. – and that wouldn’t normally get used that well. All of that has the potential to bring the price down as well.”

She adds that the project should also help companies achieve a cleaner label, as part of its goal is to reduce the need for E numbers.

The letter E

In the past, E numbers have been used to compensate for the lack of gluten in coeliac-friendly breads, but Nandi Proteins hopes to remove them from the equation.

“If you can take a natural, volume-available protein source and formulate it to fulfil the function of those additives, you clean up the label, you get a better tasting product and potentially you can do that at a better price point,” explains Crabb, noting that the higher cost of gluten-free goods is often not down to manufacture greediness. “It’s not that anyone is making super profits, it’s that you’ve got genuine formulation challenges, which means you have to add in expensive ingredients currently to substitute for the gluten that you’ve taken out.”

Price is only one half of what could make the research attractive in commercial terms, however, as Matthew Tilling, a test and process development scientist at Nandi Proteins, points out:

“Gluten-free foods, they don’t have the same characteristics as conventional bread, for example. As someone who wants to or needs to have gluten-free bread, you’re often not necessarily getting the same quality of product at the end of the day. I think there are two objectives here: one is about creating a better product that is still gluten-free, but it needs to be done in a commercially sensitive way.”

A group effort

Crabb notes that the project only works thanks to the input of its several contributors. Without them, it would be difficult to create a better gluten-free product for the mass market.

image credit: Getty Images

“We talked to Genius some time ago, so we’ve been aware of the potential, because they’re very articulate around the challenges in formulating, for example, a very good gluten-free bread,” says Crabb. “So we had identified that this was an opportunity, but it’s only really deliverable as a solution if you pull together the supply chain and the expertise… It wouldn’t be helpful if we just showed that you could do it in a lab or low volume. Obviously, if you want it to go into a food product, you need to ensure that you’ve got the supply chain with you, and it’s taken a while to bring together the partners.”

That problem has now been solved. Agrii will lend its expertise on the upstream, supply side, while Genius and AB Mauri will deliver the formulation and the final loaf that people actually want to eat. Nandi, meanwhile, will be in charge of developing the technology that takes the raw materials and turns them into vegetable proteins that can be included in an end product.

The research is expected to reach supermarket shelves in a couple of years.

Gluten going forward

As the gluten-free category comes to greater prominence, Coeliac UK hopes to further develop its relationships with manufacturers and retailers. It regularly polls its membership to discover what issues are front of mind, information that Sleet believes can help promote targeted gluten-free product development.

The charity also hosts industry days, where they address some of the biggest challenges surrounding gluten-free manufacture.

“The UK has been at the forefront in terms of the expansion of the gluten-free market,” remarks Sleet.“It’s a leader in Europe, it’s a very innovative market and we need to continue to support that investment in food technology to make sure that the UK remains at the head of the market in what will be a global market that continues to expand.”


Defining coeliac disease and related medical conditions

Coeliac disease: a well-defined, serious illness where the body’s immune system attacks itself when gluten is eaten. This causes damage to the lining of the gut and means that the body cannot properly absorb nutrients from food. Coeliac disease is not a food allergy or intolerance, it is an autoimmune disease.

Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity: symptoms similar to coeliac disease are experienced, but there are no associated antibodies and no damage to the lining of the gut.

Wheat allergy: a reaction to proteins found in wheat, triggered by the immune system and usually occurring within seconds or minutes of eating.

This information is taken from the official website of Coeliac UK.

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