Bakers Journal

Gluten-Free Baking

September 11, 2020
By Emma Davies

How baking for allergies presents opportunities for growth and loyalty

Founders of the True North Bakehouse, Jaide Hatfield and Joel Murga are innovating gluten-free baked goods. Photo credit: Murga and Hatfield.

The increase in food sensitivities is commonly recognized. The market to cater to allergies and intolerances is growing with The International Journal Of Coeliac Disease, noting significantly higher rates of Coeliac disease in Canada than elsewhere worldwide. The strength of the gluten-free opportunity lies in the loyalty of the gluten-free customer.

The Opportunity With Gluten-Free Baking:
Gluten is a group of proteins found in various grains. The choice to avoid gluten is varied; for some such as those with coeliac disease and other chronic illnesses, it is not a choice, it is essential to function. While the rising incidence of intolerances is evidenced as the primary reason for the growth in gluten-free products, many others choose to remove gluten from their diet for health benefits, such as improving digestive function or supporting
weight loss.

A survey conducted in 2015 found that 13 per cent of respondents had gluten sensitivity. However, only three per cent of these followed a gluten-free diet despite the discomfort it causes. The Canadian Digestive Health Foundation found that people consume gluten despite the health impact due to low availability. While The NPD Research Group’s findings found that half of the gluten-free consumers are not willing to sacrifice on taste, suggesting that poor taste is another factor in avoiding gluten-free foods. Subsequently, there is an excellent opportunity for bakeries to address these issues, precisely what the True North Bakehouse, run by Jaide Hatfield and Joel Murga in Kelowna, BC is doing.

Hatfield and Murga’s journey to gluten-free baking grew from personal frustrations and experiences. Joel was diagnosed Coeliac with a severe allergy to gluten at the age of ten. Murga spent his childhood struggling with lack of availability of gluten-free products, choosing between eating with friends and being unwell, or the loneliness of sitting on the side-lines watching others eat. When they started their bakery selling at local markets and experienced first-hand, the delight of others in finding cakes they could genuinely enjoy, they knew they had to expand their venture.

Things To Consider With Gluten-Free Baking:

Gluten-free requires a dedicated baking area with separate appliances and utensils; a severe coeliac cannot tolerate even small regular flour particles. Understandably, not all bakeries can accommodate this, but can offer gluten-friendly baking, which can occur in the same space but with precise steps taken to avoid cross-contamination regarding cleaning, storage and baking processes.

In terms of product quality, Murga stated, ‘there are three aspects, it has to have the taste, it has to have the texture, and has to have the look.’ Hatfield confirmed that ‘if it doesn’t have one of the three, we don’t release it. If it doesn’t look perfect, doesn’t catch your eye, people won’t stop. Then the taste and texture keep people re-buying’. Hatfield also added that ‘many people buy our stuff and then come back later and ask ‘this is vegan and gluten-free?’, proving that gluten-free can taste as good as standard baking.

However, you will need more patience for gluten-free baking as the flours work differently and Joel advocates for unique flour blends for different products. From Murga’s experience, finding the right combination for each product balances food science with trial and error. Several True North baked goods came from serendipitous experiments. ‘Sometimes when creating new recipes, we don’t realize we’re actually creating something else,’ said Murga, noting an initial effort to create the perfect burger bun made the perfect pizza base. In contrast, a new recipe for bagels became the perfect burger bun. Hatfield highly recommends seeking advice from an experienced gluten-free baker, suggesting that due to the higher cost of gluten-free ingredients, the development time saved through expert advice could also be cost-saving.

Murga discussed how gluten-free products have a shorter shelf life, which he noted means you need to communicate clearly to your customers. Products that can freeze are a helpful solution; this allows the True North Bakehouse to sell their bread in the frozen section of local supermarkets and enables customers to buy and freeze other products later.

Finally, it is crucial to understand why your customer is buying. Many gluten-free customers have intolerances. To support this, Hatfield and Murga choose to avoid processed ingredients as much as possible; they removed the yellow dye from their Nanaimo bars based on customer requests. While gluten-free products will be more costly to produce, customers of this under-serviced market indicate that if you deliver on look, taste and texture, most would rather pay a little more and enjoy a delicious treat.

Building Your Gluten-Free Network:

The gluten-free market is already in your community. Wholesale is 80 per cent of the True North Bakehouse’s business in terms of sales. Its value exceeds that through its function in driving business awareness. As a gluten-free bakery, you provide the solution to local cafés, restaurants, and stores that cannot bake allergen-friendly produce themselves. By providing gluten-free products to their local region, the True North Bakehouse quickly expanded their business.

According to one web report, there are approximately 2.4 to 3.4 million web searches a month for ‘gluten-free’. An online presence is significant in engaging your potential customer. Reaching out to local allergen-friendly groups such as your local Coeliac or Autoimmune societies is a good starting point. They are often highly active in promoting businesses that cater to their members; Hatfield and Murga collaborated with Camp Coeliac in Kelowna in 2019, taking their donuts to a new but highly relevant audience. Collaborations with relevant local businesses and influencers could access the right customers for your gluten-free products more cost-effectively than advertising. Hatfield enthused that ‘you reach so many more people without knowing it…when you partner with bigger companies with bigger clientele.’ What is clear is that for Hatfield and Murga, this is as much about serving their local community as building their business.

Round-Up Of The Gluten-Free Opportunity:

Increasing rates of food sensitivities and growing endorsement of healthy eating by celebrities and other influencers will continue to drive this burgeoning market. According to a Mintel report, as much as 19 per cent of the food industry’s growth in 2019 came from gluten-free products with other research showing that the bakery section has the highest growth in this area. Consequently, allergen-friendly baking could be a positive diversification for your bakery. Being the baked goods solution that brings friends and family together despite differences in what they can eat is a real opportunity in business and community. As Jaide and Joel both noted without hesitation, the best part of the job is ‘seeing the joy on people’s faces.’

Emma Davies is a British freelance writer based remotely in Canada. She specializes in writing articles on health, wellbeing, self-development and business.

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