The gluten-free products available today at supermarkets or pharmacies are decidedly more delicious, pleasant to bite into, and softer. They are also healthier. In short, they are more similar to traditional products made with wheat or other cereals and are forbidden to those who suffer from gluten intolerance.
This is the result of a change in approach: today, celiac disease is no longer considered a problem for just a few people (there are over 233,000 diagnosed cases in Italy, but 400,000 are estimated by the Italian Celiac Association), and even those who do not suffer from gluten intolerance can be sensitive to this complex protein or decide to reduce or eliminate it from their diet for health reasons. And they can do so without great sacrifices because now the proposal of gluten-free foods is so extensive as to require (almost) no renunciation, not even in the pleasure of food. And the news continues to come, because even this world is not immune to the “trend effect” that guides the food industry in general.
In fact, the gluten-free shopping cart is constantly changing with the wave of new products arriving in stores and current food trends (the latest being protein-rich products). In just the last few months, less legume pasta, sliced bread, corn pasta, and frozen pizzas have been sold in gluten-free products, while more soft bread, rice pasta, ready-made cakes, cereal snacks, and frozen pastries have been sold.
How they have changed But how is it possible to create such a variety of products without using many of the ingredients that characterize their recipes, such as wheat or spelt? By focusing on research and innovation, as specialized companies in the sector have done in the last decade (and are still doing) and even those that are not but have realized that they cannot do without offering the gluten-free versions of their products, such as the large Italian pasta brands.
At the agricultural level, the focus has been on selecting wheat varieties with lower gluten content and valuing alternative crops, such as rediscovering millet (which the FAO has dedicated 2023 to) or sorghum. Researchers have conducted experiments to reduce gluten levels in processed cereals, for example, by using long fermentations of dough by various types of enzymes and lactic bacteria, or by using different thermal processes such as combined heating with infrared/microwaves and extrusion cooking, which seem to be the most effective. Additionally, the ENEA has patented a technique that allows a “detoxified” gluten (i.e., not recognized by the antibodies present in celiac patients) to be obtained from bacterial or plant cells that can be used to make “gluten-safe” foods.
Finally, food companies have diversified their raw materials (valuing different ingredients such as tapioca, sorghum, oats, millet, quinoa, and buckwheat), selected quality ingredients, and simplified recipes to give gluten-free products a more balanced nutritional profile and greater palatability, particularly in texture, taste, and cooking hold.
Good but not “dietetic” The fact that they have become tastier, more rewarding, and more balanced nutritionally has paradoxically made gluten-free products appealing not only to those who are allergic or intolerant to gluten but also to a more transversal audience, attentive to health and well-being, or looking for alternative products. Or who want to lose weight, following the example of many celebrities who have praised the “miraculous” results for the line obtained by eliminating gluten from their diet.
And so the Italian Celiac Association had to publicly intervene to reaffirm that these products are intended for a special audience, that of celiacs, and that there is no direct link between a gluten-free diet and weight loss. Therefore, before adopting a “gluten-free” diet, it is always necessary to consult your doctor to evaluate whether to undergo the tests that reveal gluten intolerance.