Cigi project on gluten-free foods opens up potential for Canadian pulses

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The use of pulses as ingredients to improve nutritional levels in gluten-free commercial food products is the focus of a four-year project that Cigi began last year.

Gluten-free products have been on the radar for the pulse industry for some time, says Heather Maskus, Project Manager, Pulse Flour Milling and Food Applications. “Companies we have worked with in the past have indicated this is an area where they see a major market opportunity for pulses as ingredients. Pulses can provide gluten-free products with enhanced nutrition and health benefits, particularly by adding protein, fibre, and complex carbohydrates in the formulations.”

Many commercial gluten-free foods are high in starch-based ingredients derived from products such as  rice and tapioca, and are generally low in fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals, she says. Some gluten-free products may contain more nutritious ingredients such as ancient grains, but they can be expensive while pulses are a cost-effective alternative.

“A lot of the commercial gluten-free formulations have a considerable amount of egg in them as well and quite a bit of sugar,” Heather says. “The egg is used to build the structure as it has a strong ability to whip and incorporate air. But using egg as an ingredient to provide the foundation is also an expensive way to make a product.”

In the past year, Cigi has completed a global market analysis of gluten-free food products. The study shows a growing increase in gluten-free consumers, particularly in North America where since 2009 gluten-free products have increased 40% annually.

More recently, Cigi has been examining gluten-free domestic products to determine quality targets. “We are developing formulations for our in-house controls and will start incorporating pulses. So far, we have done some work using pulses in tortillas, started on pan breads, and may next try reformulating noodles and pasta.”

A major emphasis of the project will be the involvement of commercial gluten-free food processing companies, Heather says. Since gluten-free product development is a relatively new area most of the work to date has been carried out by the companies themselves and not a lot of information is publicly available.  Involving commercial partners will provide the added benefit of introducing pulses as functional, practical gluten-free ingredients.

“A lot of the products are very niche,” she says. “So this is about presenting the idea of pulses as food ingredients to these companies and for us to understand what kind of quality they need in a commercial product application.”

The type of pulses used for food development in this project will at least partly depend on the objectives of the commercial partners, Heather explains. “If there is something that looks desirable to them using a particular pulse, then that might be the focus. Often we look at opportunities for peas and lentils due to their volume but there is a lot of potential for other pulses as well. So it will be a combination of which pulses have the desired functionality, flavour properties, and handling abilities for use in key product applications.”

She says that pulses in the Canadian industry have been primarily positioned in partnership with cereals. So far, about 70% of Cigi’s pulse work has been conducted in combination with wheat.

“Since we have built our product development information using wheat in product applications we now have to take a new approach to using pulses in these gluten-free applications. We are going to try something completely different by using pulses in combination with other cereals like corn or rice to create a new platform of knowledge. It definitely is a major opportunity for Canadian pulses as ingredients in this growing market.”

A version of this article appears in the March 17, 2015 issue of Country Guide West.