Tasting Gluten Free Bread

Have you ever wondered how foods get from idea to plate?

I have, so I’m always interested in finding out how companies go about product development.

Recently, I was invited to join a Dr Schär tasting panel, at an agricultural college in rural Cheshire. (Dr Schär is the company behind several brands. In the UK, these are: DS-gluten free, Glutafin and TRUfree).

The idea was to help them in their product development process. Dr Schär are interested in looking at two things:

  • international differences. Dr Schär sell products in several different countries, including Italy, Germany, US and UK, and people in each of those countries have different preferences for the taste of their bread.
  • validating their internal tasting panels. Naturally, Dr Schär have internal tasting teams, but it is important to check every so often that the internal team understand, and agree with, what the customer wants. It’s easy to see how the internal teams might get ‘acclimatised’ to the taste of their own products…

So they’d invited coeliacs to bring along a ‘mainstream’ friend or family member, so that Dr Schär could see how the various products went down in comparison to mainstream bread.

Dr Schaer are running multiple panels, in a variety of different places, and at different times, but at the one I went to it was noticeable that:

  • I was among the youngest (and I’m over 50)
  • 14 out of the 15 coeliacs on the panel were female

We may or may not have been a representative group; it was an afternoon session, so younger or middle-aged people would have been at school, as my daughter was, or at work.

We were split into 2 groups, one coeliac and one mainstream, with 15 people in each. We tasted 6 different white gluten free breads, and 7 different brown or seeded gluten free breads. The ‘mainstream’ group had a variety of standard bread to taste as well as the gluten free breads.

It was a double-blind test, so I can’t tell you which brands we were tasting, but being able to compare the breads directly was interesting. Because of expense, naturally, it is unlikely that coeliacs would get such an opportunity very often. It would be extremely interesting to know which brands I preferred!

The breads did vary enormously in all aspects, from smell to texture, and one of the questions asked was quite revealing.

For each of the top-ranked and bottom-ranked breads, what was the main reason for its position on the list: appearance, smell, taste, or texture?

Before doing the test, I’d have thought that for me the taste would be the most important. But it turns out that – for me – texture (or mouth-feel) is the most significant element in rating the bread. No doubt, for other participants, other factors, such as smell, might have been more significant.

I wish I’d been able to take my daughter, as I could have found out what she thought too, and perhaps identified a brand of bread she’d prefer to our current favourites.

What do you look for in a gluten free bread?

Another Northern Baker Enters Gluten Free Market

Just in from a quick dash to Tesco again (I seem to have been to one supermarket or another every day this week) where I found:

  • Genius pains au chocolat (more on these when we’ve tasted them)
  • Roberts ‘Yes! You Can’ brown bread

It’s interesting that yet another mainstream baker has joined the gluten free providers. Roberts Bakery is a northern brand (Cheshire, Staffordshire, the Midlands and North Wales) and is probably Frank Roberts & Sons primary bread brand. One of their newer acquisitions (2010) was P&A Davies, from Chester, now known as Davies Bakery, and which specialises in gluten free products.

Curiously, the new gluten free bread is branded as Roberts Bakery bread, not Davies Bakery.

I haven’t managed to find much online about this new bread—not much more than a trademark submission from the Intellectual Property Office in early 2012. The Products/Gluten Free page of the Roberts website is blank, and I haven’t found any press releases. I wonder if the bread on the shelf in my local Tesco is part of a trial?

And… don’t you think it’s interesting that this is the second major northern baker to offer gluten free bread? I wonder what Allied Bakeries and Premier Foods are working on?

Gluten Free Tipping Point?

Are we at a tipping point?

Has living gluten free finally become normalised?

In the course of one day last week, I learnt that:

  • one of the restaurants in our nearest town has a gluten free menu
  • one of the bakeries in that town has a poster in the window, advertising that they stock gluten free products (it turns out these are from the Gluten Free Kitchen, and they are delicious, particularly the carrot cake and the coffee and walnut…
  • and the cafe down the road is stocking Delice de France gluten free bread rolls and sweet muffins. I didn’t even know Delice de France offered gluten free products!

So: is the gluten free diet becoming the norm, and acceptable in the way that, say, the vegetarian diet is acceptable? Or was this just one day in which I really looked at my local town?

New rules for 2012: don’t be confused

One of the most significant changes to the sale of gluten free food in 2012 here in the UK – or at least to its labelling and packaging – is the incoming change to the law.

The packaging that you see in the supermarkets should begin to look different. There are 3 options…

  1. The new law says that food can only be called gluten-free if the food contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten.

    The previous level was 200 parts per million (ppm), which is obviously quite a lot more, and wasn’t consistent with food labelling in other countries. This new level, of no more than 20ppm is more restrictive, and should give you greater confidence in the foodstuff. That is, of course, assuming that companies are happy to label their food as ‘gluten-free’ under these new rules.

  2. There is a new term: ‘very low gluten’. This covers foods which have between 21 and 100ppm of gluten.
  3. And finally, there is another option: ‘no gluten-containing ingredients’. This will apply to foods that don’t contain wheat, barley or rye, and where they have reasonable cross-contamination controls in place.

These new labels should apply to food in supermarkets, restaurants and cafes: wherever you buy food.

Only you know how sensitive you are to gluten. For some people, the previous level was fine; for others, even 20ppm may prove to be too much. At least now you should have more guidance as to the real quantity of gluten in your food.

It is intended to make life better for coeliacs; it will be interesting to see how companies choose to react to this new law, and whether it is easier or harder to find gluten free food.

If you work in the food industry (catering or manufacturing) you may find the guidance available from Coeliac UK to be helpful (download guidance PDF here).

Bakery Giant’s First Steps in Free From

Have you seen Warburton’s new gluten free (and wheat free) bread range on the shelves yet? I’m going to need to go to the supermarket soon, and I’ll definitely be looking out for this.

Warburton’s invited me to their launch breakfast on Friday, where we were offered not only the new white and brown gluten free bread, but also fruited tea-cakes and crumpets. The bread and rolls should be available on the shelves near you – if not now, then very soon – and the teacakes and crumpets are ‘coming soon’ . You can look for the store nearest to you at the new Warburton’s gluten free site, where there’s a handy tool for finding your nearest stockist.

I think this is a really exciting development. Not just because – as you know – we always like to find new gluten free products, and because I’m all in favour of increased choice, but because this is a mainstream baker getting involved in the gluten free market.

Main-stream baker? For those of you not UK-based, Warburton’s is perhaps the biggest name in ‘normal’ branded bread here in the UK, with 32% of the market back in 2009. (They were aiming for 40% in 2010…)

You and I know that not only is Free From a big market – Mintel estimate that here in the UK, the size of the Free From market will be £280m by 2012 – but it affects the whole of family life. I do my weekly supermarket shop based on where I can find the best Free From product range; we’re a family of 5, and so my supermarket bills are quite high. If the supermarket doesn’t cater for my daughter, not only does it not get her ‘food-budget’ shopping – it doesn’t get any of ours either. So I think the knock-on effect is significantly greater than £280m. Not surprisingly, supermarkets and the big mainstream suppliers want a part of that.

And the big companies have the financial muscle to make it viable. I learned on Friday that the basic ingredients for gluten free bread are at least twice as expensive as those for normal bread – just one of the many reasons why gluten free bread is so expensive. Another reason is the risk of cross-contamination. We all want to be sure that the food we eat is safe, and many coeliacs won’t touch a product if they have any concerns at all. Warburton’s have been able to set up a dedicated gluten free factory up near Newcastle, so there’s no worries on that score.

I know that a mainstream competitor is difficult for the small, artisan producer of gluten free products, because they can’t compete on economies of scale; they have to differentiate in other ways, on taste or variety. However, I am still pleased to see this development because it means:

  • it will increase awareness. Products with a mainstream brand attached will help confirm to others that coeliac disease is real, it does matter, and it isn’t an insignificant niche market. I’m not being fussy when I ask for safe food for my daughter.
  • it makes it easier for people to feed my daughter. Assuming that the products remain available across the country, it is easy for parents of friends as well as organisers of school trips and other caterers to provide bread products. (I did ask Warburton’s about ready-made sandwiches to buy, as an obvious brand extension, and they did say they’d already thought of that – watch this space, I guess).
  • big companies have the clout and resources to spend ages (four years so far) getting products right. I’m looking forward to the soft gluten free wraps that Darren (Head of Innovation) talked about on Friday…

Their aim is to make gluten free foods that ‘normal’ eaters would find acceptable, so that, for example, my whole family could eat gluten free without noticing. While a nice idea, I think that the cost implications are too great (for my family, at least). However, if suppliers can produce ‘lookalike’ foods, so that my daughter can eat something that looks the same as food her friends are eating, that is of huge psychological benefit to us.

Do check the products out next time you’re in the supermarket. You’ll find them in the Free From area rather than in the mainstream bread area. And the packaging is interesting too – it looks very like ‘ordinary’ bread packaging. Do let me know what you think!

In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that Warburton’s bought my train ticket to London, and gave me a bag of products to take home for my daughter to taste (including Phil Vickery’s latest book – of which more another time). I hope you know that my comments are always unbiased by such gifts.