As more health-conscious consumers rid their diets of wheat, dozens of gluten-free bread brands have sprung up in supermarkets and health food stores. Are these small, often unimpressive-looking loaves taking over? What are they made from, and how were they developed? Should you try them? And what really is bread without gluten?
The history of gluten-free bread starts with the first wave of modern low and no-carb trends in the mid- to late 1990s. Flipping the script on the low-fat craze of the 1980s, the protein and fat-heavy Atkins and South Beach diets began dominating the eating habits of health-conscious consumers, and the seeds of the ketogenic or “keto” diet (which would experience a modern resurgence a decade later) were planted. Studies suggested, however, that the hallmark lettuce wraps and processed cold cut roll-ups of the Atkins era did not lead to lasting weight loss, and may even cause adverse health effects, to the dismay of the newly disciplined starch-averse.
As more studies were released, the fad lost its momentum and consumers’ desire to eat toast, sandwiches, breaded foods, and other carbs in the spirit of nutritional completeness took over once more. Nutritionists and dietary experts began looking at other potentially blame-worthy components of the modern American diet for the range of health woes suffered among the general population. Perhaps not all carbs were the culprit, but one in particular. Enter: gluten-free bread. Once relegated to fringe diets and health food stores, wheatless bread and products—most are high in carbohydrates, a stark contrast to the gluten-free diet's low-carb origins—began to develop a mainstream audience as the focus shifted from low-carb to no gluten.
Why bread without gluten? The gluten molecule itself, being a protein, is fairly large (in comparison to the glucose molecule, for example) and forms strong bonds. The word gluten is derived from the Latin word for “glue,” owing to the substance’s sticky, elastic properties that can make foods containing gluten difficult to digest, causing intestinal inflammation with a wide spectrum of secondary health effects in anyone with Celiac disease (about 1 percent of the American population) or a gluten intolerance (up to 7 percent of the population). Most wheat grown in the United States is the hard variety, which has twice as much gluten as soft wheat. These characteristics are what makes gluten so valuable in the kitchen, whether it’s enabling pizza dough to be stretched, twirled, and pulled to achieve a thin, crispy crust, or lending stretchiness and a glossy finish to long, hand-pulled noodles. It’s what keeps pasta in its shape during boiling, and contributes to the perfect combination of fluffy, crisp, and chewy that makes waffles a perennial favorite.
An increase in overall good health from consumers gradually or suddenly eliminating processed foods—a large percentage of which is made with white sugar and flour—has led to and reinforced gluten’s now-infamous reputation. Those who previously experienced adverse symptoms from eating wheat and ditched carbs completely began to find that certain starches, like rice, potatoes, and buckwheat, did not cause the same kinds of reactions. Whether gluten is blamed for inciting gastrointestinal imbalance or accused of causing any number of physical, neurological, and immunological symptoms, its prevalence in mass-produced ready-to-eat foods has made it an even easier target for those who became accustomed to eschewing carbs (particularly bread).
Unfortunately for those who avoid gluten for an array of health concerns—from abdominal bloating, joint inflammation, headaches, and mental fog to impaired immune function, chronic fatigue, and depression—holding flour in favorable shapes and sizes between the air bubbles in bread has historically been the chief job of this naturally occurring substance. Adding yeast to wheat-based dough allows for gluten and air to react more rapidly as it metabolizes, adding a light, fluffy interior and lots of volume. Without gluten, a product that looked and acted similarly enough to wheat bread would have to be engineered using ingredients like rice flour, vegetable fiber, cellulose, and allergen-friendly binders like tapioca starch—plus yeast to puff it all up. And in the 1980s, long before the gluten-free diet went mainstream, Austrian food manufacturer Schär did just that.
Blazing a trail that would be followed by dozens of manufacturers over the rise of the gluten-free diet trend, Dr. Anton Schär studied the effects of eliminating wheat from children’s diets in the early 1920s. In response to favorable results in young patients with persistent digestive issues, Schär developed products for what would eventually become the first brand of packaged gluten-free foods.
Ulrich Ladurner, the son of Austrian health food store and pharmacy owners, acquired the Schär brand in 1979, and expanded the modest operation into a food technology laboratory and manufacturer by 1981. Among the first gluten-free products were “tisch fertige” or “ready-made” oat, rice, and tapioca-based breakfast cereals, and regional European styles of cookies like ladyfingers and butter biscuits.
Thanks to Ladurner’s own penchant for baking with gluten-free ingredients, as well as years of research and outreach to celiac specialists throughout Western Europe, Italy and Germany quickly became successful export markets. Pharmacies began stocking Schär gluten-free foods, and its line of products continued to expand. Bread, however, owing to its complex structure and role as a household staple, remained elusive not only to Schär but to other early developers of gluten-free provisions.
In the 1990s, gluten-free bread was largely consigned to health food stores and was crumbly, dry, and flavorless by all standards. Early iterations relied on potato, corn, and rice starches to provide the bulk, salt and sugar for flavor, and yeast and xanthan gum for volume and elasticity. Many recipes for gluten-free bread (both homemade and store-bought) still utilize these ingredients.
In 1999, gluten-free brand Glutino launched a line of packaged foods in the United States, but didn’t develop its bread until 2013. Boulder, Colorado-based gluten-free bakery-turned-manufacturer Katz opened its doors in 2006, steadily gaining traction by perfecting muffins, cakes, and Jewish-style cookies. As operations grew and production capability increased, Katz was able to offer several styles and compositions of bread beyond the sliced sandwich loaves sold by early competitors, including rice, tapioca, corn, and soy-based challah, sugar-free rolls, egg-free bread, and hot dog and burger buns.
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The vegetarian, vegan, and health food-friendly Rocky Mountain foothills quickly became the center of gluten-free bread development and production in the United States. Not far from Katz, Colorado gluten-free bakery Canyon Bakehouse began mass-producing bread for the Rocky Mountain region in 2008. That same year, Boulder area chef and cafe owner Udi Baron (known locally as “Udi the Sandwich Man”) partnered with a gluten-free baker to produce gluten-free sandwich bread that would win accolades in taste and texture comparisons from a wave of gluten-free bloggers and reviewers.
In 2010, longtime Colorado supplier Rudi’s Organic Bakery opened a dedicated gluten-free facility and began supplying supermarkets as well as health food stores. Loaves from many brands now delivered more fiber and protein, and ingredient labels ditched root starches and binders for more nutritionally dense sorghum, amaranth, teff, and brown rice flours, millet, oats, extra-virgin olive oil, eggs, and seeds. Brands also began substituting agave, honey, or molasses for refined sugar. As quality, palatability, and shelf life increased, gluten-free bread began appearing on store shelves, rather than exclusively in the freezer section.
In 2015, packaged foods powerhouse Trader Joe’s brought gluten-free bread to the masses, selling well-received sandwich loaves at its 500-plus locations. And in 2016, popular burger chain Shake Shack started baking its own gluten-free buns and offering them at all locations around the country and abroad. With gluten-free bread now readily available, more restaurants began offering options for anything served between two slices in an effort to appeal to and retain more and more diners avoiding wheat. Beyond sandwich bread, manufacturers all over the United States now make gluten-free sandwich wraps, bagels, focaccia, English muffins, biscuits, kaiser rolls, flour tortillas, lavash, and countless other items that until recently, did not exist outside the kitchens of determined home bakers.
So is gluten-free bread here to stay? The answer is complicated. Although safe for those with sensitivities, allergies, and Celiac disease, gluten-free bread remains a highly processed food due to the number of ingredients needed to substitute for gluten’s natural elastic qualities. No one brand has genuinely perfected the stretchy, chewy, fragrant qualities of traditional wheat bread, and reviewers continue to report mushy, crumbly textures and flat, uninspiring flavors that don’t quite stand up to hefty or juicy sandwiches. Many gluten-free breads also contain yeast, which some avoid due to adverse digestive effects. Naturally gluten-free flatbreads found around the world—like corn tortillas, Ethiopian injera, or Indian dosas—offer a more nutritionally sound approach to eating bread on a restricted diet; however they require ingredients that can be hard to find and techniques that are time and labor-intensive.
With the American gluten-free foods market projected to reach nearly $6.5 billion (and the global market anticipated to reach more than $40 billion) by 2025, it’s safe to say that gluten-free bread will remain popular and continue becoming more available at mainstream supermarkets and restaurants around the country and world. While a gluten-free diet is not medically necessary for those without Celiac disease, many people who eliminate wheat report feeling relief from a number of seemingly unrelated (and often hard to diagnose) symptoms. With that in mind, there’s no reason why consumers can’t familiarize themselves with—and perhaps even enjoy—today’s largely soft, fluffy, and palatable gluten-free breads.