Gluten Free for the Holidays

Holiday Party Holiday Party

Easy and delicious gluten-free foods continue to evolve to be the best gift at holiday parties.

From November through the New Year, holiday parties can be challenging for those with special dietary needs such as celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Especially since the occasions are highlighted by iconic foods: cakes, pies, stuffing and finger foods. Food manufacturers are helping make seasonal entertaining—and sales—simple for these customers—while seeing to it that many of these offerings are also vegan, organic and non-GMO (genetically modified organism).

New Foods

Holiday party hors d’oeuvres can be a special challenge for the gluten-free customer—particularly when replacing appetizers that use pastry doughs. Susan Hougui president/product development with Geefree, LLC in New York said, “We offer our line of Hotdogs in a Blanket, Spanakopita, Cheeseburger Bites (new), and of course the pastry dough which the consumer can use to create whatever they desire.”

New York-based Feel Good Foods offers gluten-free dumplings and egg rolls that are perfect offerings for the holidays. Vanessa Phillips, CEO of the company, added that these gluten-free foods could easily replace foods that contain gluten, and are appetizing whether you are gluten free or not. “They can be served as pass around hors d’oeuvres, they are a great snack food, and most of all they’re delicious.”

For desserts, President Jaden Lane, of Organic Matters in Iowa, said the company has a line of brownies, cookies, and caramel corn that is not only gluten free, but also vegan, organic and non-GMO. Some of the holiday favorites this year are the Vanilla Seasalt Caramel Corn, which is made with 100 percent cold pressed coconut oil, as well as the delicious Walnut Fudge Brownie.

Other holiday treats come from Illinois-based TruSweets, which recently launched TruJoy Sweets Peppermint Choco Chews. “In addition, we’ll offer an old favorite, TruJoy Sweets Organic Candy Canes,” said Bert Cohen, company president. “Our full line of Surf Sweets that are free of the top 10 allergens will be available as great stocking stuffers.”

Trends to Follow

It should come as no surprise that over the last several years, there has been a drastic increase in demand for gluten-free products. “Every month our sales increase in both our retail locations as well as online,” said Lane.

However, although there’s been a surge, there still aren’t many options in the gluten-free [appetizer] category available at this time, added Hougui. “That was one of the reasons we decided to pursue this category first. People are missing the savory cooked snack that we all remember before dealing with gluten issues. Geefree is hoping to be able to fill this gap as quickly as possible.”

TruSweets is also seeing explosive growth in the better-for-you candy market. “Consumers are becoming more educated on the harmful effects of artificial ingredients and pesticides and they are also looking for reassurances that the products they buy meet the promises they make,” Cohen noted. “Based on this we see Organic Certification, Non-GMO Project verification and GFCO (Gluten-Free Certification Organization) certification as key trends.”

Another huge trend right now is in frozen ethnic foods, according to Phillips. “People are looking for frozen foods that are full-flavored; they don’t want manufactures to shy away from including the ingredients you would find in a restaurant. The beauty of frozen foods is that they’re convenient. But just because consumers want convenience doesn’t mean they want to give up flavor. So the bar has been set higher and companies like Feel Good Foods are working to offer chef-inspired, flavorful, ethnic foods to give consumers the same taste they would have when eating at a restaurant.”

Gluten-free Challenges

One of the obstacles for gluten-free retailers and shoppers is clear: “There aren’t a ton of gluten-free hors d’oeuvres available,” said Phillips. “These are things that would traditionally contain gluten. Finding safe hors d’oeuvres at a party could pose a challenge. That’s why Feel Good Foods fits such an important niche.”

However, finding these products should get easier soon, said Lane. “Gluten-free options are more and more available in all forms as time goes on,” he noted. “The hardest part we’ve experienced eating a gluten-free diet is finding gluten-free options that are not only affordable, but are also non-GMO and organic. A lot of companies are gluten free, but they also use unhealthy GMO or artificial ingredients. To us it seems to defeat the purpose of making a gluten-free product if it’s going to negatively impact your health in another way.”

Since there aren’t too many choices, another issue is that eating the same things becomes boring very fast, noted Hougui. “That experience becomes a reminder of all the foods they can’t eat, just making life that much harder. I’ll never forget when we exhibited at our first Expo and we had a woman try the hotdogs in a blanket. She actually started crying and said, ‘it’s been 15 years since I’ve had this kind of food.’ We knew then Geefree would be able to really have a place in the gluten-free world and more importantly in people’s lives.”

Ultimately, consumers need to feel confident that product claims are substantiated and that products that carry the claims are indeed safe, Cohen noted. “In addition, consumers want products that taste great. They want to feel like they can serve and share products that are satisfying and fun to eat even though they may be ingredient restricted.”

Taste Test

Gluten free or not, when it comes to food, taste is obviously a big deal. “As a manufacturer it’s something that we are always considering,” said Lane. “Making products that are gluten free but also have that nostalgic taste/texture is very hard. Not to say it isn’t possible! The main thing we’ve found is to maintain integrity in our products. Sure, it would be easy to release and market a subpar product and have great success because it’s gluten free. That’s not how we operate though, and there’s a handful of other amazing companies our there doing the same thing. We only release a product once we are 100 percent sure it cannot be improved upon texture/flavor wise.”

At TruSweets, Cohen noted that it’s important for manufacturers to test their products with consumers, adding that that the company tests its products with many different consumers, not just consumers on a gluten-free diet.

In addition, offering gluten-free options today is not enough, said Phillips, adding that the product needs to be held to the same caliber as foods with gluten. She noted that Feel Good Foods co-founder, Tryg Siverson, is a trained chef who has worked alongside some of the best chefs in New York. “Every dish we bring to the public have foods he would personally eat. We like to say Feel Good Foods is ‘Made By A Chef, Approved By A Celiac,’” she said.

But taste can be tricky, said Hougui. “It is subjective, so really in my opinion the creator of the recipes needs to have an advanced palate and also know what flavors people crave. Then the food has to go through production without losing any of the attributes. It’s very difficult but can be done.”

In-store Holidays

Mastering gluten-free sales and merchandising may take some trial and error. According to Phillips, gluten-free products do very well when they are in the natural section of the store and labeled as such. Having a shelf tag under the products that reads “gluten free” also helps market the products.

Lane noted that the stores with the most success are marketing their gluten-free options in a dedicated section of an aisle. “People have trouble finding gluten-free products when they’re all mixed together with regular products! If they are going to be mixed together having shelf talkers/tags indicating which products are gluten free really helps them stick out to the consumer.”

But candy is oftentimes an impulse purchase. “It’s important for retailers to merchandise candy in a way that makes it easily available in store, especially during the candy holidays (Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter). In addition, we feel it’s important for retailers to call out their better-for-you candy either by putting it into a set within a set or clustering it with signage.

“Of course, demos are another option,” said Hougui, “as well as educating the staff: everyone should try a sample so when they are asked questions, they can speak from experience.” GFR

For More Information:
Element Snacks, www.elementsnacks.com
Feel Good Foods, (718) 499-2242
Geefree, (845) 323-8749
Organic Matters, (641) 451-7477
TruSweets, (224) 676-1070