The demand for gluten-free products has skyrocketed in recent years. The trend is linked to the increase in the number of people suffering from gluten intolerance or allergies, as well as an upswing in people proactively reducing their gluten intake because of real or perceived health risks. Drawn to the dizzying variety of product alternatives, following a diet without gluten is finally getting easier, healthier and tastier.

Plenty of people are willingly giving up gluten, at least partially, but for people who are gluten intolerant or even more severe, suffer from a gluten allergy, known as celiac disease, the topic is very serious. When a celiac consumes gluten, it triggers an immune response damaging the lining of the small intestine, which can interfere with the absorption of food nutrients, causing a host of symptoms and other problems like osteoporosis, infertility, nerve damage and seizures. Many consumers claim that gluten-free products are also easier to digest thanks to a lower glycemic index compared to conventional food products.

High-quality, gluten-free pasta is in high demand, however, consumers still expect these products to meet their taste, texture and nutrition criteria, which includes having organic options – keeping manufacturers on their toes in terms of managing their supply chains and production processes.

The science behind gluten-free pasta

Gluten-free pasta flour

Gluten is formed from two types of protein – gliadin and glutenin – which are found in wheat, barley and rye, but not in other cereals. Gluten makes up about 80 percent of the amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) found in these grains. It is the ingredient that creates the texture so loved in “Italian style” pasta, therefore, when producing gluten-free pasta, something similar is required to alter the structure of the flour starches during pasta production; the most common substitutes for semolina flour being corn, rice or buckwheat. To complete this alteration in a gluten-free starch, it is necessary to gelatinize a percentage of it to the point that the pasta achieves the right consistency – without becoming rubbery. This can be achieved in two ways:

  • using pre-gelatinized flours (which usually undergo a thermal or hydrothermal treatment, but are sometimes also chemically modified), or
  • by properly processing the native (unadulterated) flours before mixing

When the mixing of native flours is integrated into the production process it’s easier to monitor product quality. Likewise, raw material costs are significantly reduced since more of the process takes place in-house, allowing customers to meet their return on investment more quickly.

Setting industry pasta standards by taking a customer view

A leading supplier of extrusion and milling technology Pavan, acquired by GEA in 2017, has been raising the bar in pasta production for more than thirty years and was one of the first companies in the world to industrialize the production of gluten-free pasta made from rice and corn. Already in the late 1980s, Pavan took the decision to develop technologies for processing native flours given the prohibitive costs faced by producers using pre-treated flours. This strategy allowed Pavan to pilot its gluten-free pasta processes more thoroughly without having to sacrifice high product quality – more difficult to achieve with pre-treated or modified flour. 

Successful pasta production is highly influenced by the interplay of temperature, cooking time and the moisture content in the product. To gain an even better understanding of the characteristics of diverse gluten-free starches, The Pavan Research Centre collaborated with select Italian universities specializing in rheology – the science dealing with the deformation and flow of matter, including viscosity. Using the insights gained during this research and testing, Pavan developed a machine in which the initial hydrothermal treatment takes place before the product is placed in a vacuum and subsequently extruded. This treatment process is integrated in the pasta press, creating a compact and highly functional unit. Pavan plants are unique because they allow customers to use untreated raw materials to produce finished products of a quality comparable to the finest gluten-containing products – a must-have for today’s consumers.

The flexibility of Pavan plants and drying systems make it possible to use standard lines for the production of both traditional and gluten-free pasta, without considerable alteration or risk of cross-contamination. The exceptional engineering of the cooking equipment and its integration in the vacuum extrusion process allows for the production of superior quality pasta starting with untreated and natural ingredients, such as flours made from rice, corn, pulses (the seeds of legumes) and quinoa, both wholegrain and refined. The precise configuration of Pavan drying systems makes the entire process considerably easier to operate; for example, because gluten-free products generally require high temperatures in the first phase and lower temperatures in the latter, Pavan divides these drying machines into two sections.

Flexibility is key to our customers. We’ve produced plants for gluten-free pasta made entirely from rice and corn, which use both refined and semi-coarse or wholegrain flours, and we’ve delivered products that can alternate between traditional gluten-free cereals, such as rice and corn, and other alternatives such as pulses, quinoa and buckwheat.” - Roberto Chimetto, Technical Service Manager of the Dry Pasta Division, Pavan

The long and short of it

Pavan plant for the production of gluten-free pasta, Italy.
Pavan plant for the production of gluten-free pasta, Italy.

Our customers specializing in the production of gluten-free bakery products set ambitious goals for themselves, and therefore, us. One of them, a family-based, company in Italy, approached Pavan in 2015 when they decided to expand their production to include pasta. Their goal: to achieve the highest level of product quality in the gluten-free sector, not only in Italy but globally. Pavan accepted the challenge, delivering the design, building and commissioning of two new lines, which covered flour storage and handling all the way up to packaging: one for long cut pasta and another for short cut pasta. Combined, the new lines deliver an impressive production capacity and represent an important shift as the customer had previously used pre-gelatinized raw products. Within days of the new plants going online, they noted significant improvement in the taste and quality of their finished products.

Pavan press and extrusion head for long cut gluten-free pasta, Italy.
Pavan press and extrusion head for long cut gluten-free pasta, Italy.

The production line for long cut pasta works with a single tier thermo active system (TAS) drying technology, which leverages simple and reliable mechanisms, drying pasta efficiently. The line for short cut pasta uses a nine-tier final drying system, also based on TAS technology. Because of the diversity of the customer’s gluten-free product recipes and pasta shapes, frequent line changes are required; to accommodate this, the new Pavan lines are fully automatic and fitted with a state-of-the-art monitoring system to ensure consistent and efficient production.

For the production of long cut gluten-free pasta, Pavan has eliminated the need for mixing between different doughs and cleaning gelatinized dough residue from the extrusion screw. This is made possible due to a new type of extrusion head, which: 

  • is easy to open for quick access to the extrusion head
  • facilitates the correct and homogeneous distribution of the flow of dough in the head and on the die
  • minimizes maintenance time and raw material wastage

Today, this same customer is now processing pure pulse pasta using red lentils, beans and chickpeas to meet increasing consumer demand for healthier and more nutritionally complete gluten-free pasta. The more recent purchase of an additional Pavan handling system for flours has doubled its existing gluten-free pasta production capacity.

The most recent Pavan plants for gluten-free pasta in United States, Canada and Europe are among the largest in the world, but we’re also seeing more and more interest for this technology in emerging markets, where the cost of the raw materials is lower than that of imported cereals," says Maurizio Ricchiuto, Sales Director, Pavan

Where’s the trend going: challenges and opportunities

According to Mordor Intelligence, the global growth forecast for the gluten-free pasta category is estimated at 9.5% between 2018 and 2023. Increasing consumer interest in health and nutrition, including the incorporation of plant-based protein and more fiber into meals, has now led to an explosion in the variety of pulses used in pasta. Not only high in protein and fiber, but also in antioxidants, pulses have fewer carbohydrates than semolina flours and are low in fat. 

The majority of pulse flours can be used on their own to make pasta, which are easier to cook than pulses (legumes) in seed form, and equally easy to store. The seed hull is eliminated during the milling process which means less gas formation during digestion. 

The fact that gluten-free and pulse pastas have become mainstream is a boon for producers and consumers, as it has facilitated improvements in the quality, capacity and flexibility of pasta production lines. Even so, achieving the product quality that consumers demand is challenging. Pavan has met these hurdles head-on by developing pasta technologies that are easy to manage, maintain and clean and that above all, help manufacturers turn raw materials into high quality, gluten-free products that are very similar to their semolina-based equivalents. This know-how is a result of Pavan’s industry-leading experience in managing cooked doughs, particularly in products like gluten-free pasta where retrograded starches are notoriously difficult to handle. 

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