'Why does gluten-free bread have to cost so much?' Can manufacturers really justify those higher prices or are they just 'riding the gluten-free bandwagon' and creaming off the profit?
Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, founder of Genius Gluten Free, explains why gluten-free bread genuinely does cost a lot more to make than 'normal' supermarket bread – and she should know!
High cost ingredients
The vast majority of wheat flour used in the UK to manufacture conventional, 'supermarket' bread is sourced from UK mills, and uses predominately UK grown wheat (around 83%*). This allows for significant cost savings..
Flour milling in the UK is a mature and highly efficient industry, having evolved for over 1000 years – flour mills are recorded in the Domesday book. It produced 4.8 million tonnes of wheat flour in 2012! Most of this flour is produced in a small number of huge, computer-controlled mills producing thousands of tonnes of flour per week with little human intervention. A conventional large bakery will take delivery of many, daily, 30 tonne plus deliveries of wheat flour in road bulk tankers from a mill probably not more than 50 miles away, and receive a highly consistent product which has been made to their exact requirements.
(For more details see the
National Association of British and Irish Millers Flour Milling 2012 Booklet.)
To replicate the functionality of the single ingredient of wheat flour in a bread recipe and produce a comparable loaf of Gluten Free bread, we at Genius (and other gluten-free bakeries) must source a wide array of ingredients from around the world.
These include various grades of rice flour, egg (for protein) and starches derived from maize, tapioca and potato. None of these have been processed for bread making and most of them are imported, in small quantities in paper sacks. All of them are significantly more expensive £-per-kg than wheat flour.
A typical gluten-free loaf will have in total over 20 ingredients in its recipe, and the resultant ingredient cost is about 2-3 times that of an equivalent conventional loaf.
Bread has been baked with wheat since prehistoric times. The 'modern' mass-production method used to manufacture plant-baked conventional bread in the UK – the Chorleywood Breadmaking Process – has been in widespread use since the 1970's, but Fresh Gluten Free bread was launched into the market in 2009.
The sheer number of ingredients, their variability and their consequent interaction with each other, means that a far higher level of technical support is required when compared to conventional bread production. A large modern conventional bakery will practically run itself, whereas the production of gluten-free bread requires constant supervision. The complexity of the process, the variability of the ingredients and their sensitivity to any process variation also results in higher levels of product being unfit for sale and therefore having to be scrapped.
As one of the world's staple food, wheat and wheat-derived products find their way into most food manufacturing operations. For the manufacture of gluten-free bread, all ingredients being sourced must be assured as not only being declared wheat and gluten-free, but must be free of any risk of traces of contamination.
Consequently strict supplier approval and Quality Assurance processes are in place, including testing before use in many cases.
Due to the 'newness' of gluten-free bread and its lower sales volumes, production plants are inevitably far smaller than the modern 'super bakeries' used to manufacture conventional bread. As a result there is less automation in gluten-free bakeries and, consequently, higher staffing levels
As more Research and Development is carried out and our understanding of the behaviour of the ingredients in the production process increases, gluten-free bread manufacturers are investing in new equipment to improve the quality and consistency of the finished product for the consumer. Once again, this is cost is disproportionately high in gluten-free compared to the more mature, well established conventional bread plant.
Packaging and Supply Chain costs
Due to the low volumes and the fact that gluten-free bread is not displayed by the retailers alongside conventional bread, it is delivered in disposable cardboard cartons rather than reusable bread baskets. So this adds yet another extra cost to what is already a more expensive product.
However, as the category matures to mainstream status, prices will gradually decrease as mass manufacture becomes the norm.
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