Gluten-free, new frontiers for bakery products

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Celiac disease is a gastrointestinal disorder caused by gluten intolerance: if a celiac subject takes gluten-containing cereals or gluten-related products, that substance (in particular gliadin, a gluten protein) causes a series of autoimmune-based damage to intestinal mucosa, resulting in gradual flattening and consequent malfunctioning of villi, which are no longer able to properly absorb nutrients. Therefore it is not food allergy but an autoimmune inflammatory disease with strong genetic basis. Celiac disease is chronic, with more or less intensity, depending on the subject, and is currently treated only following a strict gluten-free diet: this is essential to ensure the well-being of those affected by celiac disease and to prevent other problems associated with such illness i.e. nutritional deficiency caused by intestinal malabsorption and other autoimmune diseases.

Celiac disease is very common: it affects approximately 1 person out of 150 in Europe (in America it has slightly less effect), so the gluten-free products market is assuming increasingly interesting proportions, also because in many countries the health care system encourages and partly subsidizes these products so that there is no excessive economic burden for consumers who already have to live with the inconveniences of this pathology. In Europe the growth expectations of the gluten-free market are 39% for the period 2012-17 (from 790 million dollars to 1.1 billion dollars), since the demand for these products is significantly increasing; as a matter of fact not only celiac subjects buy these products, but also a growing number of consumers who have decided to eliminate gluten from their diet, as affected by other gastrointestinal disorders or simply to follow a healthier diet. The bakery industry is clearly the leader of this growth trend (2/3 of the gluten-free market) because it’s the one that “churns out” the greatest number of grain-based products. Concerning legislation, at European level, regulation 41/2009 is in force since the beginning of 2012: it formalizes the characteristics and the compulsory directions for gluten-free products to be marketed, imposing precise rules for their composition and labeling. According to this Regulation only food containing not more than 20 mg/kg of gluten may continue being labeled as “gluten-free” foods. The term “very low gluten” can be used for a maximum content of 100 mg/kg, and generally refers to products derived from cereals containing gluten (i.e. wheat) and treated in order to remove that particular protein (e.g. wheat starch). These indications must be respected not only on labels but also on advertising, websites, etc. Several legislative “grey areas” were still left open by the subsequent issue of the General Regulation on food labeling, Reg. 1169/2011: European associations of Celiacs are worried about the lack of clarity concerning the labeling of foodstuffs that are sold in bulk (unpackaged) and/or at market and supermarket food sections. In order to avoid a “double regulation” for the labeling of products for Celiacs, the latest Reg. 609/2013 was set forth: it stipulates the abrogation of Reg. 41/2009 from July 2016, thus leaving full labeling management to Reg. 1169/2011, without food for celiacs being reported as “essential for a vulnerable category” (as associations hoped) like what happens for infant foodstuffs. Determining the content of gluten in an ingredient or worse in a finished product isn’t always easy: some processes such as enzymatic treatments and cooking can alter the gluten or partially hydrolyze it, making it still able to cause damage to intestinal mucosa (unless there is a complete acid hydrolysis of this protein) but harder to properly quantify, especially if fast and not validated test-kits are used: as a matter of fact, these kits should never totally replace official tests (e.g., highly sensitive ELISA type immunochemical tests) but they should be only a support for inline production.

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