Health concerns drive interest in alternative flours

1 Jan 2020

Alternatives to wheat flour were once driven primarily by demand for gluten-free foods, but an increasing number of consumers is buying foods enriched with vegetables, pulses and ancient grains in a bid to improve their overall nutrition.

Several important food trends have come together to boost alternative ingredients in products that traditionally were 100% wheat-based. Among those driving new product development are rising interest in plant-based diets, growing awareness of the importance of fibre, and more mainstream demand for high protein foods and ingredients.

Health concerns drive interest in alternative flours
Nutrition and functionality are equally important considerations

Increasingly, foods that previously were made nearly exclusively from wheat flour, such as baked goods, pizzas and pasta, contain ‘hidden’ vegetables, incorporated in dried form either to enrich the product, or as a complete replacement for flour. Examples include the US pizza brand Caulipower, with its cauliflower crust, or algae used along with wheat flour in pasta. Such products often contain fewer calories than those made with ordinary flour, and also give consumers a hyper-convenient way to incorporate more vegetables in their diet.

Improved nutrition has been a big driver for pulse flours too. Warburton’s – the UK’s biggest bakery brand – partnered with the Canadian International Grains Institute in 2016 to help increase and improve the use of pulse flours in industrial baked goods, for instance. Many companies have turned to pulses for their high protein content, not only from a nutritional perspective, but also as a way to replace the functionality of the gluten protein. Several brands now produce 100% gluten-free pasta made from pulses like chickpeas, lentils and fava beans.

Gluten-free grains and pseudo grains like amaranth, teff and quinoa also have proliferated in pasta, breakfast cereals and baked goods. Manufacturers have found they can take advantage of the functionality of their non-gluten proteins, while benefiting from consumer interest in wholegrain, high fibre, and recognisable ingredients.

Of course, the gluten-free trend remains a major driver for gluten-free foods, and although only one in 133 consumers is thought to suffer from coeliac disease – an autoimmune disorder with symptoms triggered by gluten – often family members will eat gluten-free meals too, to avoid having to cook separate foods within one household.

In addition, low-FODMAP diets have gained ground among some consumers struggling with the gastrointestinal distress and bloating associated with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), estimated to affect 10-20% of the global population. FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols) are short-chain carbohydrates found in many foods, including grains, and the diet has taken off as a growing body of scientific research has suggested that fructan, rather than gluten, may be the compound in wheat that triggers symptoms in people with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.

Companies including Kerry Group and Fazer Mills have highlighted the low-FODMAP trend as one that could even outstrip gluten-free in the longer term. While the number of products still is comparatively small, growth is strong: according to Innova Market Insights, the number of new foods and drinks with a low-FODMAP claim increased an average of 130% a year from 2014 to 2018.

Whatever the main growth drivers for alternatives to wheat flour, the number of new gluten-free foods on the market has continued to grow rapidly, up by an average of 24% a year over the past five years, according to Innova. This suggests broad appeal for foods based on wheat flour alternatives, perhaps well beyond those who actively seek a gluten-free claim.