Around the world foods produced from wheat, barley and rye represent a common foundation for healthy diets, and also provide us with some of our favorite indulgences and treats. Most of us will enjoy a sandwich, bowl of pasta, slice of cake or a biscuit without a second thought. But for some people, eating these common foods can have serious health consequences. This is because the grains that they are made from contain a natural protein called gluten.
When gluten causes illhealth
For the majority for the population consuming gluten is harmless, but for about 1% of the population, eating even tiny amounts of the protein causes celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that damages the lining of the small intestine. This damage eventually prevents normal absorption of nutrients from food, and can lead to malnutrition.
Celiac disease is genetic, which means it runs in families. Typical symptoms might include abdominal bloating, cramping, diarrhea and constipation, as well as headaches, tiredness and joint pain. But long-term disease has also been linked with increased risk of other serious autoimmune conditions, skin disorders, and even epilepsy or cardiovascular disease.
Some people who don’t have celiac disease may still be sensitive to gluten in their diet, and find that when they eat gluten-containing foods they develop similar gastric symptoms, such as pain, bloating, and diarrhea. Although gluten sensitivity is inconvenient rather than a serious threat to health, it can still cause a lot of discomfort and distress.
Going gluten free
There is no treatment for either celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, other than to avoid eating or drinking anything with gluten in it. But this is no mean feat. It’s not just the obvious breads, pasta, pastry, cookies or snacks that are made using gluten-containing whole grains and their flours. Gluten is also found widely in prepared foods such as ready meals, soups, sausages and sauces, or flavorings and other food ingredients.
So how does industry manage to produce gluten-free foods that are still nutritious, and that look and taste as good taste good as our traditional favorites? The key to developing recipes using alternative raw materials is an understanding of what gluten actually ‘does’ in these recipes. When mixed with water, the gluten protein swells and forms a network of elastic strands that helps to maintain the structure of, say, bread dough or pasta shapes. The elastic gluten also acts as a binder in baked flour-based products such as cakes or biscuits. Using naturally gluten-free raw materials, such as potato, rice, corn, sorghum or tapioca instead of wheat, means developing recipes, processes and equipment that make it possible to exploit their natural starches as an alternative to gluten.
Locally grown alternatives
The ability to use substitute raw materials for some of the world’s most basic foodstuffs may also have economic benefits in geographic regions where wheat, barley or rye don’t thrive as crops. Over recent decades the development of adapted manufacturing processes and equipment has allowed producers in these countries to manufacture dietary staples such as bread and pasta using cheaper, locally grown grains and tubers, rather than having to import wheat at considerable expense.
Understanding the need to design processes and equipment for manufacturing these non-gluten breads and other dietary staples, GEA has over the last 40 years developed versatile small- and industrial-scale technologies and processing lines that have made it cost-effective for manufacturers around the world to produce many traditionally gluten-containing products, using locally grown gluten-free raw materials.
Technologies for the challenges
"Our first machines, developed decades ago, were designed to help manufacturers produce pasta from home grown non-wheat crops," stated Luciano Mondardini, R&D Director at GEA Pavan with expertise in extrusion and milling technologies. "We were pioneering such processes and technologies before the drive to develop gluten-free products for health reasons."
Over subsequent years GEA continued to develop dedicated machines and equipment options, such as dough depositors that can handle sticky gluten-free bread dough, and fully automated lines that have allowed manufacturers to work with commonly challenging gluten-free doughs and batters. Today’s processing lines using GEA equipment exploit recipes that harness the binding properties of natural starches in tubers and grains to produce the highest quality appealing, tasty and healthy gluten-free options, both for mainstream and health-driven niche markets. "The key part of the process is the method and equipment used to gelatinize the starch, without the use of additives or other binders", Mondardini commented. "Today we have gluten-free pasta plants in countries as far afield as Poland, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, the US and Canada".
More recently, an increasing number of producers in African countries have been contacting GEA to provide equipment for processing sorghum, millet or corn, into staple pasta products. "In some instances we can provide the equipment that allows manufacturers of imported wheat-based pasta to switch to manufacturing gluten-free pasta using their local crops. In fact, we can tailor systems that can process every traditional short cut or long cut pasta shape, using any flour." One emerging market is Ethiopia, where the staple crop is an ancient grain called teff, which is traditionally used to make a fermented bread. Using GEA equipment producers can also now use teff to manufacture pasta that has a long shelf life and is easy to store and transport.
"We have developed pilot processes that demonstrate the feasibility of using our equipment to exploit this local crop," Mondardini said. "The availability of cheap, mass-produced and healthy ready-made foods using staple crops may also mean better nutrition for poorer populations, as well as helping to provide important nutrition and options for people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity".