Meeting the gluten free challenge

How food producers are developing gluten free products without compromising taste or quality

There’s no doubt that gluten free food is on the menu to stay. Not only is it a dietary requirement for the 35,000 Australians with coeliac disease – who must eat gluten free for life due to a permanent intestinal intolerance to the protein – but these days other people are choosing gluten free options for a variety of reasons.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats as well as foods and ingredients derived from these – such as breads, cereals, pasta, pastries and biscuits. According to Coeliac Australia’s 2010 Research Fund Survey, gluten free is the most frequent dietary request in foodservice, representing a staggering 2.4 million or 1 in 10 Australians.

This unprecedented demand for gluten free options means major food suppliers are working hard to create gluten free products, as well as reformulating existing ones to eliminate gluten as an ingredient where possible – all without compromising taste or quality.

“In the old days gluten free options were very limited and didn’t taste good,” acknowledges Adam Moore, Corporate Chef for Cerebos Foodservice which some years ago reformulated its famous Gravox gravy and boosters range to eliminate gluten, replacing the wheat flour component with cornflour. “But now we have great-tasting gluten free products. I work with food technologists, scientists and nutritionists to make sure we get really nice texture and flavour into the product – textures typically come from starch so you need to use rice flours or corn flours and modify techniques. If the texture is not enjoyable then people won’t eat the food. So you look at what you can add to replace that protein.”

Adam emphasises that offering only limited gluten free options on the menu is a surefire way to miss out on business. “Suppose there’s a party of seven who want to eat at your establishment, and only one of them needs a gluten free meal. If you don’t have enough attractive options on the menu, they’ll go elsewhere and you’ll miss out on not just one meal order but seven. When you multiply this out across days and weeks, you’re losing a lot of potential customers. So it makes sense to make as much of the menu as possible gluten free.

“When you’ve got a pie or a casserole, it’s relatively easy to make it all gluten free, and a lot of the big restaurants are doing just that – gluten free across the whole menu so there’s no variation. If you’re using gluten free gravies across the board, it’s not going to have any adverse affect – it still tastes and smells great, customers don’t know the difference unless they need the gluten free option.”

Today not only are Cerebos’ Gravox gravies gluten free, so are all its Fountain sauces and all its chutneys except for beetroot.

“As a manufacturer we’ve made a conscious decision to go gluten free across 80 per cent of our range – we would rather eliminate gluten ingredients completely, but for some products like breadcrumbs we can’t do that yet.”

The story is similar at Unilever FoodSolutions, where Corporate Chef Mark Baylis is heavily involved in the push towards gluten free. “The current perception is still that non gluten free food tastes better, but from a manufacturer’s perspective we’re focused on changing that, especially under the Knorr brand. That is a chef’s brand and its pillar is taste – we want to deliver the best flavoured products to the chef. So we’re charging ahead with creating gluten free products that we can stand under that banner with pride. The aim is to create a product where you can’t tell whether it’s gluten free or not from the taste.

“We’re trying to go to the point when the gluten free formulation is almost going to be better than the standard one – that’s how far we want to push it. We have the capabilities and the right people working in our business to develop these products and I’m quite passionate about it too.

“At this stage we have gluten free products under our Continental brand plus others that we are planning to move into the gluten free space. If, for example, we could take all our portfolio and make it gluten free, that would be the perfect solution for all our customers, and eventually that may be the road we walk down.”

In the meantime, Mark says any new formulations will be developed to be gluten free. “In a non way it’s a lot tougher in Australian than overseas, because the Food Standards requirement here is ‘no detectable gluten’ – in other places it’s 20 to 50 parts per million, which is not so strict. But that keeps us on our toes!

“Gluten free is not going away so we really have to make sure we continue to create the technology and methodologies required to produce gluten free products which are not only of a high standard but a clean label as well – so it’s all about real ingredients and gluten free too.”

Even with a comprehensive selection of gluten free products to choose from, the challenge for foodservice professionals is to understand the issues around ensuring safe preparation of gluten free meals. To this end, Coeliac Australia has teamed up with Nestlé Professional to produce a comprehensive Gluten Free Practical Guide.

Nestlé Professional launched a range of gluten free products including Maggi soup mixes, gravy mixes and stock powder back in 2005 and today has an extensive portfolio of gluten free products, with more than 44 gluten free options in the Maggi and Nestlé Docello ranges. The latest Maggi gluten free product launch is Maggi Classic Golden Roast Gravy – one of four gluten free gravy mixes endorsed by Coeliac Australia & New Zealand.

“Without supporting processes in the kitchen, it’s a challenge to provide a gluten free menu,” points out Karen Kingham, an accredited practising dietitian and Brand Nutritionist at Nestlé Professional.

“We know that the consequences of gluten contamination can be serious. No amount of gluten is acceptable in a gluten free meal. The Practical Guide offers a clear, plain English solution based on Coeliac Australia’s standard for best practice in gluten free foodservice.”

The Gluten Free Practical Guide covers easy to follow ‘how to’ advice and tips, breaking processes down into three key areas of sourcing, segregation and service.

“We get feedback all the time from foodservice providers who just don’t know where to go to get the right information,” says Coeliac Australia Special Projects Officer Cathy Di Bella. “This guide equips operators with the tools they need to make credible gluten free claims based on accurate knowledge from a trusted source.”

Coeliac Australia has also been busy with a major project of its own – an online training and accreditation program for foodservice professionals.

“The Food Standards code specifies if you’re offering gluten free it must be ‘nil detectable gluten’ but it doesn’t tell you how to do it,” Cathy Di Bella points out. “That’s why we broke the process down into the three key areas – it’s not enough just to start with a gluten free ingredient, you need all three principles working in harmony to come up with the no detectable gluten result at the end.”

“We wanted to focus on education and we knew that any online training had to be interactive, entertaining, accessible from multiple platforms and meet the needs of hospitality students.

“It’s been a huge project for us to pull together and we soft-launched in October – we wanted to iron out all the teething issues but it’s been interesting in looking at the take-up so far. We have seen a much broader range of divisions within hospitality take it up than what we expected. We thought our primary audience would be ‘mum and dad’ cafes and restaurants but other sectors have come on board as well – cooking schools, bakeries that are trying to branch into gluten free, the healthcare and childcare sector and disability sector have all shown interest.”

The program costs $50 to complete – you just go to the Coeliac Australia website, click on the training link, register your details and you can do it all online. “It’s a much more affordable way of educating than doing face to face training,” Cathy points out. Once you’ve completed the training and passed an online assessment you receive a Certificate of Achievement that’s valid for three years.

Cathy says that for many diners with coeliac disease, trust in the foodservice establishment’s ability to offer meals that are truly gluten free as advertised is the biggest issue. “Our national survey asked ‘have you felt ill after eating out in the past months?’ About 26 per cent of our surveyed members had fallen ill and a percentage of those had to go and seek medical help.

“That said, the survey also shows that 90 per cent of gluten free diners who’ve had a positive experience eating out will go back to that establishment, so the commercial advantages of offering gluten free are obvious,” Cathy emphasises. “A good gluten free dining experience will deliver repeat business.”