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A gluten-free market for pulses

A new Cigi project may help western pulses tap into growing nutritional demand

Gluten-free tortilla rounds, from left: control, Yellow Pea, Chick Pea, Pinto Bean, Navy Bean, Green Lentil.

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 began last April at Cigi (Canadian International Grains Institute).

Gluten-free products have been on the radar for the pulse industry for some time, says Heather Maskus, project manager for pulse flour milling and food applications at Cigi.

“Companies we have worked with in the past have indicated this is an area where they see a major market opportunity for pulses,” Maskus says. “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, but they are generally low in fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals, Maskus says. Some of the 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 lot of egg in them as well and quite a bit of sugar,” Maskus 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.”

Gluten-free tortilla rounds.
Gluten-free tortilla rounds. photo: Cigi

Since April, Cigi has completed a global market analysis of gluten-free food products. The study shows an increase in gluten-free consumers, particularly in North America where, since 2009, gluten-free products have been increasing at an annual rate of 40 per cent.

Recently, Cigi began examining gluten-free domestic products to determine quality targets. “We are developing formulations for our in-house controls and will start incorporating pulses,” Maskus says. “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, Maskus adds. 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,” Maskus 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.”

The type of pulses will at least partly depend on the objectives of the commercial partners, Maskus explains. “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.”

Maskus says pulses in the Canadian industry have been primarily positioned in partnership with cereals  and, so far, about 70 per cent 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,” Maskus says. “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.”

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