Will Gluten-Free Ever Turn Mainstream In Asia Pacific?

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018

Gluten-free bakery is still a niche market in most Asia Pacific markets—with the noticeable exception of Australia and New Zealand. But, as gluten-free bakery products continually get better, who knows what the future will hold? By Rachel Park, Marketing Manager, Korea, Australia and New Zealand, DuPont. 

Far more people in the world follow a gluten-free diet than those who actually need to. While consumers with gluten intolerance or celiac disease need to avoid it, it’s becoming more mainstream across the globe to go gluten-free. However, if you scan the bakery shelves in many Asia Pacific stores, you’ll have a hard time finding that gluten-free lifestyle trend. Here, indulgence and natural fortification still rule—and the sensory short-comings often associated with gluten-free bread, for example, keep sales to a minimum.

As with all rules, though, there are exceptions. In this case, it’s Australia and New Zealand, which stand out in the Asia Pacific region as markets where gluten-free has become a popular lifestyle choice. The overview of bakery product launches from Innova Database puts gluten-free among the top three packaging claims in these countries. From 2012 to 2017, gluten-free bakery launches in Australia and New Zealand grew 19 percent overall.

Success Under Tough Conditions

What’s interesting about this growth is that Australia and New Zealand have some of the toughest labelling laws in the world. Oats and malted gluten-containing cereals are not permitted, and ingredients derived from gluten-containing grains must be declared on product labels, no matter how small the amount used. Still, gluten-free manufacturers are experiencing considerable success despite having to meet these stringent requirements.

As in other gluten-free growth markets, the bakery category is driving the trend. One of the reasons why the segment has moved from niche to mainstream in recent years has got to be the vast improvement in quality. Bakers have proven that gluten-free bread, cakes and cookies can be almost as good and tasty as standard gluten-containing ones.

A New Set Of Goals

Now that bakers have reached that milestone, new goals have appeared on the horizon—borne by consumer expectations for gluten-free products that offer additional health benefits.

The movement towards healthier gluten-free bakery was one of the key findings of a recent consumer survey commissioned by the specialty ingredients business, DuPont Nutrition & Health. Although the focus was four European markets—France, Italy, Spain and the UK—they share many Western attributes with Australia and New Zealand. That makes the findings of interest, both to the already established gluten-free markets of Asia Pacific and to other regional markets where bakers may see future opportunities to differentiate their range with gluten-free options.

Like Australasia, the average incidence of celiac disease in Western European countries is around 1 percent. Yet, according to Mintel market research, the percentage of consumers who buy gluten-free products is considerably higher—11 percent in Italy and UK and 8 percent in France and Spain. Findings from the DuPont consumer survey point to healthy living as a main driver of gluten-free sales in these markets.

The survey also showed something else: that consumers are still hunting for even better quality and wider availability of gluten-free bakery products.


The Search For Better Quality

But, before going more deeply into that, let’s start by taking a brief look at the history of gluten-free baking.

In fact, you don’t have to go many years back to find the time when gluten-free bread was a product that many gluten-intolerant consumers would probably prefer to avoid. Gluten-containing wheat flour is often replaced by combinations of maize, rice, tapioca and potato starch. In the early years of gluten-free baking, bread was typically dense and crumbly and rapidly turned dry.

These texture defects can be partially offset by the addition of sugar and fat—at the expense of nutrition. As time has gone by, many industrial bakers have taken another route, compensating for gluten through the addition of hydrocolloid blends containing cellulose gum, xanthan, guar, locust bean gum, pectin and psyllium.

In this way, many bakers today produce gluten-free breads with a relatively high volume, better softness and a reduced tendency to dryness right after baking. That’s a good starting point for taking the next step and meeting consumer demand for extra nutritional benefits. As the results from the DuPont survey confirm, many consumers perceive a nutrition claim on gluten-free labels as a sign of higher product quality. And they are usually right.


More Appeal And Nutrition In One

When improving the nutritional profile of gluten-free bread, there are two main ways to go. Bakers can add fibre or protein—or a combination of the two. Whatever they choose, they will often find that the addition of fibre and protein both makes their products healthier and optimises the softness, structure and look of the final baked bread.

Fibre has long been a popular nutrition claim on bakery products, and gluten-free bakery is no different. Mintel reports that 25 percent of European gluten-free breads were labelled with an added fibre or high fibre claim from 2014 to 2016. In the UK alone, 44 percent of gluten-free consumers expect the products they buy to have a high fibre content.

Each of the hydrocolloids used in gluten-free bakery blends is a fibre source in its own right. Following a review of scientific literature, the US Food & Drug Administration has declared that all of them satisfy its definition of dietary fibre and may be declared as such on food product labels.

At DuPont, application trials have also explored the use of polydextrose for fibre enrichment of gluten-free baking. Comprising 80 percent soluble fibre, polydextrose is already used for the production of white bread with a high fibre claim, thus appealing to consumers who dislike the taste and feel of whole grain.

In gluten-free bread or cake recipes, the water-binding capability of polydextrose contributes to the softness and moistness of the final product. In low-moisture products such as gluten-free biscuits, on the other hand, polydextrose acts as a crisping agent, thanks to its high glass transition temperature.


A Good Protein Option

When it comes to protein addition, some large bakery companies use soy protein to delay staling and improve the colour of their gluten-containing white bread. This functionality plus the excellent nutritional quality of soy make it a good option for protein enrichment of gluten-free bread, too.

The only drawback is that soy protein is an allergen that some consumers need to avoid. So, depending on the target market, there may be a case for using an alternative protein source that offers similar technical and nutritional benefits.


Gluten-Free Gaps To Fill

Findings from the DuPont survey suggest there are still gaps for industrial bakers to fill, even in Europe’s biggest gluten-free markets—and that better nutrition is just one of them.

For the survey, DuPont interviewed groups of men and women between the age of 20 and 45 about their gluten-free shopping and consumption habits. They were also asked to evaluate some of the gluten-free bakery products currently on sale in European stores: white and brown bread, a wrap, cake and biscuit.

The conclusion? That consumers would buy even more gluten-free bakery products if there were a wider range to choose from. In other words, they want more of everything—more quality, more nutrition, more flavours and more portion sizes. Some also look for products with a shorter ingredient list, thus supporting a forecast from Innova Market Insights that clean label will be a major driver of future new product development within the gluten-free segment.


The Road To Indulgence

For ambitious gluten-free bakers, it seems there are still many avenues to explore for new product development. The suggestion is that, if bakers can meet consumer needs by bringing more innovative products to market, they will continue to ride the gluten-free growth trend in Western and Western-style markets, including Australia and New Zealand.

As for the rest of Asia Pacific, there is no sign of an emerging gluten-free movement at the moment. But, who knows? As the quality continues to improve and more nutritional claims are added to product labels, perhaps there is a chance of a gluten-free breakthrough sometime in the future. That will be the day when gluten-free bakery products finally rank among the indulgent.


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