Importance of Testing in Gluten Free Manufacturing
People who are Celiac or Gluten Intolerant, are very sensitive to gluten if found in their food; this is why globally very stringent quality parameters have been kept for the maximum gluten allowance in the food products that are to be declared as Gluten Free. The allowed limit of gluten is 20 parts per million which in simple terms means 20 milligrams in one kg. Any digestion of gluten accidentally by gluten intolerant or celiac patient damages their villi of intestines which triggers off varied problems.
The controlling factor is the presence of Gluten which is a protein found in the grains like Wheat, Barley and Rye (not mustard seed) and the best way to make gluten free food products is by using natural non-gluten grains, millets and legumes. A combination of the above grains can give numerous flour mixes as alternatives to the regular gluten food and these can be used to make a variety of products like chapatti, tortillas, cake, cookies, bread, dosa, pancake etc which will take care of the cravings of the people.
The keyword in any gluten free food is the absence of gluten which at outset might appear to be easy but it comes in a hidden form and in so many aliases that the manufacturer has to be extra cautious and on guard while manufacturing GF goods.
As in manufacturing, it is milling of the alternative gluten free natural grains, millets and legumes which forms the bulk of everything being made, the biggest risk comes from the agriculture sector where cross-contamination of wheat and barley with other gluten free grains, millets or legumes at the agriculture market (mandi) is likely to happen.
Many crops have harvest times that coincide, wheat comes at the same time as sorghum and Bengal gram, and no particular care is taken at the market place, where all of these crops are kept out in the open. Neither farmers nor the market officials are aware of this critical factor and the acuteness of the problems which arises due to cross-contamination. Hence the onus of cleaning and segregating of involved crops comes on the manufacturer and it is his responsibility to take care of it. Any overlook or carelessness at this stage will give a bad name to gluten free manufacturers to have a presence of gluten higher than prescribed norms.
To maintain the standards, the best possible solution is that all the grains should be sieved and segregated properly. Segregation should be done with machines as well as manually as many times as possible till the machines cannot segregate the material any more effectively. The quality check will be better if contract farming can be done directly with farmers where the facilities of dehusking can be created independently, as products will arrive directly to the manufacturer’s premises with no chance of cross-contamination.
In India, proper training to female workers for manual segregation has given good results and they are still a cheaper and effective solution to machines or sortex segregation. The flour of these grains should be periodically checked by Elisa Kits to see that gluten ppm is in the control range and this testing should be done before sending them into the market or using them in-house for making other products like cookies, cakes, fresh bakery or savouries etc.
The second biggest chance of contamination comes from additives that appear to be gluten free but might have hidden gluten in them. Such additives are starches, thickeners, emulsifiers, humectants and flavour enhancers where the source of their origin needs to be confirmed.
Most starches in India are corn and rice based, or can come from neutral products like potato or tapioca, and are considered safe but still, certificate of analysis for their product to be gluten free should be taken from the suppliers. However, many flavour enhancers and thickeners are not gluten free and can create problems if used by the manufacturer in his premises, as his end product will be found to be adulterated which can lead him to be penalised by the health and the food regulatory body for producing unsafe food. These products should be also tested for gluten on a regular basis with in-house testing labs to validate the results sent by the vendor of such additives.
The third source of adulteration comes from the workers and employees who are involved in manufacturing gluten free foods. They need to wash their hands thoroughly after every meal they consume and their food room should be away from the production area. The job of a quality control person is to ensure that workers wash their hands with soap and the production sleepers, apron, mask etc. are not allowed in their dining hall.
Small dust of wheat flour is enough to contaminate the whole batch of flour, thus the above factor which is ignored normally should be taken care of in particular.
For savouries, especially Indian savouries, many masalas have gluten which we people normally are not aware of. Asafoetida/Hing in its purest form is gluten free but when it comes to the market commercially, it is adulterated with starches to make it economical and hence most of the masalas containing hing) fail the gluten testing. All spices and spice mix which comes from either a vendor or from the market must be tested to ensure that all namkeens and savouries are gluten free and suitable for consumption as GF products.
For gluten free product manufacturing, premises should be dedicated solely to gluten free manufacturing, and conventional glute containing food should never be prepared there. This instils confidence and trust in the manufacturer’s products. If for some reasons the product being made is gluten free but made on the machinery where earlier products containing gluten have been made or premises have gluten present in some form, it is better to declare on labels about the risk of cross-contamination and let the consumer decide whether to buy the products according to their sensitivity and reaction to gluten.
Testing at every stage from raw material to additives to finished goods will keep a check on quality and ensure that the gluten free product going to the market safe to consume by the ones with gluten sensitivity. Since gluten is not visible to the naked eye, testing by Elisa adds on reliability and a safety layer to the products which the manufacturer is declaring as Gluten Free in the market.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has introduced new regulations recently for gluten free labelling of products and if the products fail in the government’s testing lab when a sample is taken, the food samples are declared unsafe and have very serious implications like heavy penalties and even imprisonment.
Furthermore, the manufacturer is always under the scrutiny of the aware consumers who keep on picking the declared Gluten Free products randomly and get them tested; if they are found contaminated and beyond the permissible limits, they put the results on social media and make them viral. Such actions are very damaging to the reputation of the manufacturer and once the brand name gets soiled in a controversy, it’s very difficult to come out of the quagmire.
Hence gluten testing not only makes the product safe, but it adds value to the brand name and builds trust and loyalty.
Our endeavour at Wheafree is to integrate all the above testing protocols in our manufacturing processes and follow them stringently. Such a testing regime has helped us to give high quality gluten free products and gain the trust of our customers.
About the author:
HPS Lamba is the founder and Managing Director of two famous Gluten Free Brands – Wheafree and Everhealth. Apart of holding various positions at industrial associations, he is Industry Expert at Incubation Committee and Board of Studies at Thapar University.