Gluten-free craze is lucrative business
As more and more of us remove gluten from our diet, the bakery sector is being forced to move with the times to accommodate consumers. Ross Davies finds out more about this rapidly-growing market.
Gluten and free are two key words now sought out by an increasing number of visitors to supermarkets and restaurants. According to London-based market research agency Mintel, sales of gluten-free products amounted to £184m in the UK last year, which is up 15% from 2013. The company found almost 15% of British households are now avoiding gluten and wheat, while one in ten new food products launched in 2014 were gluten-free; double what it was in 2013.
In the US, there would appear to be an even greater clamour for more gluten-free products, as nearly a quarter of all US products have gluten-free claims, catering to the third of American adults avoiding it at all costs.
Avoiding gluten is such big news these days, US comedian Jimmy Kimmel compared a gluten-full diet to "satanism" in Los Angeles.
Science verses fiction
It's hard to tell what is driving this global trend, although it's not due to a huge increase in the prevalence of coeliac disease, which is a digestive condition where a person has an adverse reaction to gluten. Only 1% of the UK population are coeliac.
Instead, more and more of us are choosing to drop gluten from our diet in the name of health and well-being, following in the footsteps of celebrities such as Novak Djokovic, who is currently ranked the world's best tennis player. He attributes his success to renouncing gluten in 2013. Hunger Games actress Jennifer Lawrence described gluten-free to be "the new cool eating disorder."
The scientific community, however, remains divided. One half claim it could be a life-enhancing diet, while the other counters that such an assertion is false, with gluten-free being no more than a psychosomatic fad.
If it is a vogue, it certainly feels like a prolonged one, and one which the food industry is far from dismissive of, particularly the bakery sector.
Food group Nutryttiva Health Foods has already enjoyed a great deal of success. It introduced banana flour onto the UK market, at the beginning of 2015, due to its high RS2 resistant starch properties. Since then, it has seen record bulk orders from bakeries.
"It's an interesting time regarding banana flour and the bakery industry," says Steven Brown from the group. "It caught on so quickly with gluten-free and grainless baking consumers that it actually took us something by surprise."
According to Brown, Nutryttiva, which is headquartered in West Sussex, was initially approached by the bakery sector. Companies were looking to experiment with blending banana flour with other flours to make a cost-effective gluten-free product that had additional health and nutritional benefits, aside from just carrying a gluten-free label.
Banana flour contains all of the nutrients found in bananas, as well as a high-potassium content, high-dietary fibre, and RS2-resistant starch. Such products are only likely to spread across the UK market, predicts Brown.
"Products including banana flour should start appearing across the UK in 2016," he says. "My understanding is that the bakery sector is looking to be able to produce products that are not only gluten-free but with additional health benefits, something which banana flour offers."
For Hannah Jennings, founder of London-based bakery Butter Beautiful whose offerings include cupcakes, occasion cakes and bespoke wedding services, offering gluten-free options has long been an integral part of her venture's remit since it began in 2014.
"I get lots of orders for gluten-free cakes," she said, when we met in east London, where she is based. "This summer I had a pop-up market stall at BOXPARK in Shoreditch and the interest I got for the gluten-free cakes was really encouraging, as was the feedback. This has led to repeat orders and recommendations, which is great."
Embracing the trend
Jennings, who herself follows a largely wheat-free diet, also attended a baking course last year to get inside knowledge on how to bake gluten-free creations that don't compromise on taste, which she says is a common complaint.
She said: "Gluten-free cakes are often dry and crumbly, and the most useful tip I took from the course was you need to give them as much help as possible to make them moist. I went on the course to aid in my quest to produce gluten-free cakes that people really couldn't tell they were gluten-free, as much as they might like to have tried."
I asked Jennings if there were any secrets she was willing to reveal, and she said: "I like to add stewed fruit to sponge mixtures and substitute ground almonds for part of the flour in the recipe."
"These are both things that work just as well with non-gluten-free cakes, so often the recipes I use for these are exactly the same, apart from the gluten-free flour.
"While I haven't ventured into the world of mixing flours myself, I think there are some great flour blends available in the supermarkets. The Doves Farm range is my flour of choice. I'm on a bit of a mission to improve the press that gluten-free cakes get. I find that if people don't know a cake is gluten-free, they enjoy it, but wouldn't choose to have one unless they needed to," said Jennings.
Although Jennings, who left the comfort of a corporate job in recruitment to set up Butter Beautiful, is realistic enough to admit that 'cake will never sell as a health food', she believes there are opportunities for small bakeries, such as hers, to experiment in-line with consumer dietary requirements.
You get the sense that other bakeries would do well to embrace a similar tactic. Who knows, in years to come, gluten-free may well be proven to be an unscientific fad. However, for now, it remains an especially lucrative one.