Grain-free trend just sprouting in bakery, but may overtake gluten-free

By Douglas Yu

- Last updated on GMT

Food industry leaders think positively about the grain-free trend. Pic: ©iStock/evitaochel
Food industry leaders think positively about the grain-free trend. Pic: ©iStock/evitaochel

Related tags Wheat

Many bakery industry professionals believe the grain-free trend will catch on - driven by a demand for more natural, less processed ingredients - and will eventually supersede gluten-free.

Grain-free, as an extension of the gluten-free trend, has been gaining pace in recent years, said Euromonitor.

The market data provider reported that gluten-free products have grown from $374.8m in US retail in 2011 to $836.1m in 2016, registering a growth of 123.1% during the period.

It also predicts gluten-free products will reach around $1bn by 2021, growing 31%.

Advantages over gluten-free

Many bakery industry pioneers believe the grain-free trend will become the preferred option for ingredient-conscious consumers, despite currently being much smaller than gluten-free.

Casey McMillin 1
Casey McMillian

“I believe grain-free snacks are just getting started."

“Grain-free products are associated with more natural, less processed ingredients than typical gluten-free products,”​ said Casey McMillin, CEO and founder of Paleo Prime Cookies.

“I believe grain-free snacks are just getting started… and it’s [driven by] a combination of consumer demand for convenience combined with improved nutrition information and the desire to maintain a diet on the go,”​ he said.

The grain-free cookie startup is anticipating a 150% growth this year with new distributor relationships and online channels.

Steve Gaither, president of JB Chicago (a marketing agency for food companies), said grain-free also allows manufacturers to have the “dog whistles”​ of paleo and gluten-free on their packaging.

Steve Gaither

Grain-free also allows manufacturers to have the “dog whistles” of paleo and gluten-free on their packaging. A dog whistle is a secret nod to an exclusive audience, such as paleo or gluten-free, without alienating the rest of the consumer base.

“Those niche consumers seeking grain-free products look for the ‘dog whistle’, but now you can tout the more mass benefits of low carbs and low sugars, and sometimes protein, to accompany grain-free products,”​ he said.

Gaither added gluten-free has, until recently, been associated with undesirable tastes as well as varying levels of health benefits between rice flour, almond flour and ancient grains.

Grain-free is not paleo

Many consumers believe that a paleo diet is the same as a grain-free diet, but Barely Bread’s CEO and founder, Amanda Orso, said it is not so.

“We consider grains to include not just wheat, but also oats, rice, corn, barley and, of course, all ancient grains such as spelt, amaranth, quinoa, millet, kamut and so forth,”​ she said.

“Paleo ommits these ingredients, as well as legumes and dairy. Other grain-free bread and bakery products on the market many include dairy or legumes.”

Amanda Orso
Amanda Orso

"A paleo designation ommits not just wheat, oats, rice, corn, barley and all ancient grains such as spelt, amaranth, quinoa, millet, kamut and so forth, but ​legumes and dairy, too."

Orso said when Barely Bread first started, she was not seeking to create a paleo product, “but by using a clean, low-glycemic ingredient list, we happened to ‘check the [paleo] box’”.

Barely Bread was launched in the US in November 2016, and expects to generate over $1m in sales in its first year.

Gaither told BakeryandSnacks that, while paleo is trending, it is still small, hence the reason why many companies use 'grain-free' instead of 'paleo' as their marketing buzzword.

“So even if you win, you still lose. It’s also very polarizing, much like the Atkins diet. ‘Oh, I’m not on the Atkins diet, so I won’t buy this product’,”​ he said.

Changing perceptions

Orso contended that while consumers have been advised to eat whole wheat and grains for a long time, the idea of avoiding grains is becoming more mainstream.

“With diabetes on the rise, the medical community is beginning to correlate grain consumption with an increase in insulin spikes and obviously sugar conversion,”​ she said.

Research conducted by Barely Bread illustrated that purchasers of grain-free bakery products included early trend adopters, as well as health managers and people who take their health seriously.

“We also found the typical grain-free customer is either a celiac patient or has a gluten intolerance,”​ added Orso.

Challenges of grain-free

The higher prices of grain-free baked goods is a challenge for companies like Barely Bread, Orso said.

“In our case, our flour base consists of almond, coconut, cassava and some sweet potato, which is more expensive than wheat or rice flour,”​ she said.

“Even with the growing awareness of the paleo, there is still a level of necessary education that exists for the benefits of grain-free bread.

“However, we believe grain-free will be the next gluten-free.”​ 

Prime Paleo Cookies' McMillin added the challenge is to open up the segment of grain-free cookies.

“Cookies are typically thought of as an unhealthy indulgence. We are working to show that it’s possible to make natural snacks that are delicious,”​ he said.

McMillin noted bakery manufacturers have access to better ingredient options, and retailers - both conventional and specialist - are now more open to the grain-free segment. 

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