by Dr. Mark Edwards
s more people discover the substantial health benefits of a gluten-free diet, more food companies will replace wheat and other gluten-food grains with gluten-free algae flour and algae oils. Algae food products also give consumers access to healthier foods that are free of GMO material, pesticide residues and allergens.
“Gluten free” represents one of the fastest growing health food categories because many people have gluten sensitivity, allergy or intolerance, which is known as celiac disease. Americans spent more than $4 billion on gluten-free foods in 2012, according to the American Celiac Disease Alliance. A 2013 report from MarketsandMarkets estimates the gluten-free product category is growing in excess of 20% a year and predicts the international market will reach $6.2 billion by 2018. North America holds about a 59% share in the global market.
Gluten-free bakery and confectionery products represent 46% of total gluten-free products volume share, followed by gluten-free snacks at 20%. The highest consumption of gluten-free products in the global market is through conventional sales channels. Hain Celestial, Inc., General Mills, Inc., Amy’s Kitchen, Inc. and Boulder Brands are some of the top companies in the gluten-free foods market.
Gluten is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and other food grains such as barley, rye and triticale. Gluten gives dough elasticity, which helps wheat products such as bread rise and hold their shape. Gluten also adds a chewy texture to grain products.
The FDA announced on July 2013 that products labeled ‘‘gluten free’’ still would not have to be 100% free of wheat, rye, barley and their derivatives. The gluten free label will mean the products contain less than 20 parts per million, (PPM) of gluten. The 20-PPM threshold is generally recognized by the medical community to be low enough so that most people who have celiac disease won’t get sick if they eat it. The FDA standard will also ensure that companies cannot label products gluten-free if they are cross-contaminated from other products made in the same manufacturing facility.
People who suffer from celiac disease do not absorb nutrients effectively. The gluten found in wheat and other cereal grains makes them sick. Celiac disease affects about 3 million Americans but a far larger set of consumers experience disease symptoms without the diagnosis. People with celiac disease suffer from abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea. The disease also can cause weight loss, fatigue, rashes and a broad set of long-term medical problems.
Celiac is a diagnosed illness that is more severe than gluten sensitivity, which some people self-diagnose. Gluten intolerance is often accompanied by wheat intolerance and leads to stomach pain and inflammatory skin conditions such as dermatitis herpetiformis. Wheat must be labeled on food packages but barley and rye are often hidden ingredients in food. The FDA labels will end the eating “Russian roulette” for people who have celiac.
Many people try to avoid gluten because they feel better and their health improves on a gluten-free diet. Health food advocates note that people on a gluten-free diet often have health problems, typically associated with stomach pain or inflammation, when gluten is eaten.
Gluten-free diets have become popular to avoid a spectrum of health problems. One longitudinal study found that celiac disease is about four times as common today as it was in 1950. People are adopting gluten-free diets to treat celiac disease-like symptoms in the absence of a positive test for the disease. Some health advocates have claimed gluten-free diets moderate autism in children, but scientific studies have not supported autism claims.
Most people had never heard of celiac disease ten years ago. Social media and especially the healthy living sites have exploded awareness about celiac and an umbrella of related maladies. Medical experts believe digestion and inflammation problems are expanding because consumers are eating more processed gluten-rich products like pastas, pizzas and baked goods than in past decades.
Most the major food companies have introduced new gluten-free products due to rising consumer demand. Oscar Mayer recently announced a new line of gluten-free hotdogs and wieners. Walmart has recently introduced a section of gluten-free foods. The new Gluten-Free Resource Directory offers a search feature, which gives consumers a quick way to find companies that provide products meeting the consumer’s specific requirements.
Algae to the rescue
Currently gluten-free diets depend on several grain and starch sources, including corn, potatoes, rice, quinoa and tapioca. Various types of bean, soybean, pea and nut flours are often used in gluten-free products to add protein. Algae flour offers three times the protein of corn or rice.
Last year, over 90% of soy and corn plantings employed genetically engineered seeds. While many consumers prefer foods without GMO material, Monsanto spent millions to defeat the GMO labeling initiative in California in 2012, where it is practically ubiquitous in wheat, soy and corn products.
Chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides have been linked to ADHD, autism, cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease and other illnesses. Recent medical research includes three independent studies in Environmental Health Perspectives, which show that children exposed to pesticides in the womb are more likely to have measurable problems with intelligence, memory, and attention, beginning at 12 months and continuing through early childhood. These studies link prenatal pesticide exposure (measured in the urine of mothers-to-be) to significantly lower IQ in children by age 9. The research teams, from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, all conclude that pesticide exposure during pregnancy could negatively affect brain development.
Fortunately, algae can be grown without the use of chemical fertilizer or pesticides. Therefore, algae-based foods have no pesticide residues.
Many people, especially young children, suffer from food allergens such as peanuts. An allergic response to peanuts usually occurs within minutes after exposure. Symptoms range from mild to severe and include:
- Skin reactions, such as hives, redness or swelling
- Itching or tingling in or around the mouth and throat
- Digestive problems, such as diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea or vomiting
- Tightening of the throat, shortness of breath or wheezing and runny nose
A 13-year-old with a peanut allergy died in July 2013 at a popular summer camp in Sacramento after taking a bite of a Rice Krispies treat containing peanuts.
A person with milk allergy may react to one of dozens of the proteins in milk. The most common protein allergen is alpha S1-casein. Other people react to specific proteins in eggs, walnuts or shellfish. Food allergies cause symptoms similar to peanut allergy, such as skin rash, hives, vomiting, and gastric distress such as diarrhea, constipation, rhinitis, stomach pain or flatulence.
Algae are lower on the food chain and generally do not set off food allergies. Blue-green algae activate the immune system. By increasing the immune system, blue-green algae may decrease the effectiveness of medications that decrease the immune system.
Food processors currently use soybean, nuts and flax in gluten-free products to add dietary fiber. Food producers will soon take advantage of the plentiful soluble dietary fibers in algae, which are several times higher than the highest current food source, flax. The dietary problem with flax is soluble fiber. Flax contains about 25 percent soluble fiber and 75 percent insoluble fiber. The total fiber content of several algae species, (~6 g/100g), is greater than that of fruits and vegetables promoted today for their fiber content: prunes (2.4 g), cabbage (2.9 g), apples (2.0 g), and brown rice (3.8 g).
Stabilizers and thickeners
Gluten-free dieters must avoid distilled spirits that are fermented from wheat, rye and barley products, including beer. Algae have been used successfully in regular and gluten beer as a clarifier. The Handbook of Brewing recommends the time-tested method of clarifying beer and ales with Irish moss carrageen found in abundance in several a species of red algae.
Food companies use gluten in unexpected ways such as for a stabilizing agent or thickener in ice-cream and ketchup. Algae compounds including agar-agar and carrageen are commonly used in the food industry as gelling, emulsifying, and stabilizing agents. Algae agar-agar, alginates and carrageen offer excellent substitutes for gluten in food processing.
Medicines and cosmeceuticals
Gluten-free dieters often find gluten among the ingredients in over-the-counter or prescription medications and vitamins. Gluten-free labeling requirements will cause medicine and vitamin producers to use non-gluten algae compounds and substitutes. Many synthetic pigments used for coloring medications contain gluten. Natural algae pigments give brighter color and contain no gluten. Unlike synthetic pigments, algae pigments are nutritious.
Cosmetics such as lipstick, lip balms and lip-gloss often contain gluten to give pliability and avoid drying. Alginates from algae can provide a non-gluten substitute for the gluten compounds in modern foods. Alginates are currently used in many lipsticks and skin creams because they penetrate the skin better than gluten products. Algae have the advantage of being tiny. Algae-based compounds can pass through the dermis layers better than gluten.
The FDA labeling requirement for gluten-free foods provides a great opportunity for the algae industry. Gluten-free labels are likely to change shopping behavior for many consumers who will be able to choose healthier, tastier and more nutritious algae-based gluten-free foods. Gluten-free labels will inspire food companies to add more labels that show foods to be free of GMO material, pesticide residue and allergens. Old and new food products will change to gluten-free where algae compounds hold competitive advantage over gluten with substantial health and nutritional benefits.