There was a time in recent memory when most consumers hadn’t even heard of gluten intolerance, or the autoimmune disorder celiac disease, which is triggered by the consumption of the gluten protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Certainly, preparing gluten-free foods — especially baked goods — in restaurant kitchens or manufacturing facilities was rare. The challenges of cross-contamination were insurmountable in facilities without a dedicated gluten-free zone or certified capabilities. Options were scarce, and the “taste factor” took a back seat to the seemingly complicated needs of this special diet.

How times have changed. Research from Mintel shows that in 2015, even though nearly half of consumers agree that gluten-free diets are a fad, one quarter of consumers report they consume gluten-free foods — a 67% increase from 2013. Consumption continues to trend upward, driven by health concerns and the perception that foods touting free-from claims are both healthier and less processed.

“Gluten-free is not a trend; it’s a choice now,” said Susanne Ross, vice-president of product design and innovation for The Original Cakerie, Delta, B.C., Canada. “And a lot of people want choice. Our job is to meet those demands without compromising a great eating experience.”

Getting ahead with gluten-free


Though The Original Cakerie won the National Restaurant Association’s FABI (Food and Beverage Innovation) award for its Inspired by Happiness brand Gluten-Free Dreamin’ two-layer cakes last year, developing award-winning gluten-free products was not an overnight success, according to Ms. Ross.

Because the company is known for the light texture of its sponge cake, that’s what it aimed to achieve in gluten-free versions. Challenges were varied but not insurmountable: “We’re a scratch manufacturer, therefore we created our own blend with food scientists, adjusting where needed,” Ms. Ross said. “You need to manage the coarseness of the grain of the cake; it’s about finding the desired texture and flavor.”

Her first foray into the wheatless arena was seven years ago, “when there wasn’t a great demand but a subtle underground.” Putting the “cake project” on hold for a few years, the company developed gluten-free brownies as well as seed and nut bars in the interim. “They’re more forgiving, but cakes are a little trickier,” Ms. Ross said.

She eventually revisited the sponge cake project and evaluated the results time and again until they hit upon “the magic.”

“There are gluten-free blends out there that could be fine at home, but weaknesses show when you start to scale up; then you can reinforce it where you need to when it’s out to manufacturing — there are other stresses when you put it through equipment — and then it’s sent out for blind tasting,” she said.

Today, all Inspired by Happiness products from The Original Cakerie, which are sold frozen for food service, are certified gluten-free by Beyond Celiac, and its “A Level” British Retail Consortium certification requires the company’s facilities are audited frequently.

Flour formulations that work


Recognizing the demand for familiar, gluten-free foods that taste great, experts including Richard Coppedge, Jr., CMB, professor of baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Hyde Park, N.Y., have turned their efforts to creating workhorse formulations that are free of wheat, rye, barley and triticale (the wheat/rye hybrid).

In “Gluten-Free Baking with The Culinary Institute of America” (2008), Mr. Coppedge published five distinctive gluten-free flour formulations, which were welcomed by the growing number of consumers choosing a gluten-free diet.

In his most recent book with CIA, “Baking for Special Diets” (2016), Mr. Coppedge included only two of the blends. “I’ve learned from my own experience that having fewer choices makes it easier for people to choose; no one formulation is the ‘cure all’ to helping everybody,” he said.

Individually, the two blends do what he feels needs to be done. Flour Blend A is the “weaker,” more starch-oriented formulation; it’s low in protein, higher in carbs and includes some fiber-based buckwheat. “I found the previous five didn’t have enough fiber needed to bulk it up; without the fiber, it wouldn’t hold water as well.”

Flour Blend B, the “stronger” flour — a protein-rich blend with a gluten-type performance — includes dried egg whites and whey powder.

Along with his students, Mr. Coppedge is discovering pulse flours (from dried beans, dried peas, lentils and chickpeas) in gluten-free formulations. “Pulses are dramatically high protein grains,” Mr. Coppedge noted. “I’m using black bean flour as a gluten-free alternative in making a brownie or mudslide cookie.”

He’s also incorporating red lentil flour for red velvet cupcakes. “Personally, for me, once you get over the distinctive taste of pulses, the color, texture and nutrient value are great," he said. "The gluten-free market has really spiked the use of pulses in food service.”

Enterprising ideas


Parkhurst Dining, the Pittsburg-based college food service provider, has seen an increasing number of students seek out gluten-free. At its Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) account in Washington, Pa., the numbers have reached double digits the past few years, according to director of partnership development Aaron Weaver.

An unusual solution to providing tasty gluten-free desserts and entrees appeared at his office door two years ago; Megan DeLisle, then in her junior year, started up her own baking company, Gluten-Free on 5th, to help her celiac father enjoy “normal” food. She was seeking contracts to sell her baked goods and microwaveable meals.

“Parkhurst offered her free consulting services,” Mr. Weaver recalled. The college worked with her to meet all legal requirements of labeling and transport of product, and advised and mentored the budding entrepreneur.

“I enjoyed all her meals, and her cupcakes were the best. We marketed the fact that she was a W&J student and now a grad; we sell about 100 of her gluten-free meals a month.”

Teff stuff


“I discovered ancient grains — many are gluten-free — but since it was difficult to make something good with them, that led to more research,” said Laverne Matias, co-founder of Bacano Bakery in Emeryville, Calif., a dedicated gluten-free artisanal bakery. “I felt it was important to honor the properties of the ancient flours; I started to have fun with it, figuring out how we can enhance characteristics of specific flours.”

With its earthy freshness, teff is one of Mr. Matias’ favorites — he even uses it in a sourdough starter — though he finds it’s challenging to work with since “it doesn’t want to absorb liquid.”

In Ethiopia, calcium-rich teff is ground into flour and fermented to make the region’s traditional injera, a spongy flatbread. Because of the grain’s gluten-free properties, it’s increasingly being used in the U.S. in snacks and breads.

Mr. Matias currently uses teff in several bread formulas, including a vegan kalamata olive and herb boule that’s 50% teff flour with no added starches or xantham gum, and a sweet, maple-molasses ginger bread (40% teff).

“Usually in gluten-free baking, breads are mainly made with rice flours,” he explained, but loaves like Bacano’s multigrain, which combines millet, sorghum, teff and flaxmeal, use tapioca and almond flours instead.

Flavor forecasting


In looking to the “next iteration of flavor trends” as unveiled in the 2016 McCormick Flavor Forecast, Gary Patterson, CEC, PCIII, FMP, executive chef, McCormick for Chefs, Hunt Valley, Md., turns to pulses and seasoning blends for gluten-free formulations, which stand to benefit from trendy flavor boosts.

“As an industry as a whole, we’re looking at allergens and sensitivities,” he said.

Blends with benefits are among the company’s leading trends, and Mr. Patterson is singularly impressed by the chia seed. “It’s pretty mild with a slightly nutty flavor that takes on the flavor of what you’re working with,” he said. The seeds provide a super-high protein source and can be added as a seasoning to amp up a gluten-free profile.

“You can use it as a crust on the outside of meat instead of traditional breadcrumbs. You’re taking your seasoning blend and adding something to it instead of adding it to flour.”

A matcha spice blend enhanced with ginger and lemon, for example, can provide flavor and color — along with green tea’s health halo — to an otherwise “vanilla” gluten-free layer cake.

Ancestral flavors, another top trend, can also shine in gluten-free formulations. A dessert recipe developed by McCormick stars popped amaranth, an ancient grain, paired with almond butter, oats (gluten-free certified), cranberries, cinnamon, vanilla and sea salt. Topped with dark chocolate and drizzled with dulce de leche, the absence of flour in these bars goes unnoticed.

Mr. Patterson knows that chefs are ultimately looking for their gluten-free dishes to taste great — and he admits it’s too often a trade-off in texture and desirability.

“If it’s an oatmeal raisin cookie, for example, add more cinnamon, more vanilla to make it taste more indulgent — to distract the consumer from some of the other things such as a different texture, or it being either too dry or too moist,” Mr. Patterson said.

No matter the formulation, he said, the final gluten-free item must taste great.

This article originally appeared in Food Business News