The rate of coeliac disease among Italians is rising. Studies have found that what used to affect one percent of the population now affects 1.6%, in part thanks to Italy’s famed pizza and pasta, and the modified starch they contain.

Being coeliac is taken so seriously in Italy that for the most impacted there’s a stipend of 140 euros available each month. Happily, Italy’s baked goods sector is turning its skills to adapting those quintessential foods and recipes to open them up to everyone to enjoy, as well as make the most of this growing market – forecast to grow by 8.5% by 2025.

Italy’s baked goods industry is valued at $26.6bn and flour in the country is the bedrock of its cuisine, along with lovingly grown fresh produce and a revered passion for quality ingredients. Local producers such as Mulino Caputo, based in Naples, take pride in their craft and in turn the premium dishes that come from them.

And yet, just 20 years ago, like everywhere in the world, what was on offer for gluten-free people was uninspiring. Without the gluten-shield, leavened goods such as pastries and breads tend to be less tasty, and texturally drier. However, Italian food technology has gone into overdrive to solve this issue, and it's now one of the biggest exporters of gluten-free items in Europe. Italy’s gluten-free export market grew by 7.1% last year: one of the reasons for this is that recipes are often enriched with buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa, or legumes, which transform what would have been typically gluten-free items into more desirable products.

A growing trend is how legacy baked-good brands that have operated in Italy for years, are investing in R&D in the gluten-free space. One such brand, Elisa Food, has tried to create items that still “preserve the flavour and textures of the original recipes from our culinary heritage, faithfully preserving them in our range to cater to coeliac customers.” Elisa’s products are created using a zero-kilometer method, which means they select flour from local growers. “We produce our pizza in the region which is devoted to growing corn, rice and buckwheat.”

By using innovative food technology and local ingredients, Italian bakers are creating baked items that bear remarkable similarities to the famous originals.

Italy is well-positioned not only to produce durum wheat, which is a key ingredient in regular, gluten-free baked goods and pastas, but sorghum, millet and corn, too. Sorghum is grown across the Emilia Romagna region, also known as Italy’s breadbasket.


Investment in technology is soaring. At Italy’s oldest university, the University of Bologna, an initiative called Bake4Fun, explores innovative biotechnological solutions for the production of new bakery-functional foods. This means using tech to add iron or vitamins to bread, reducing deficiencies. Similar technology is applied to gluten-free products too. The results of the Bake4Fun project aim to set Italy’s baking sector apart: “The project results …will have significant impact on…SMEs…who can now expand their business by adding new food formulations and…products to their product range, obtained through a combination of non-conventional grains and innovative bread-making processes.

There are significant challenges to creating gluten free food. Food is only gluten-free if it contains less than 20 ppm gluten, and staff are required to wear clean food safety apparel to ensure the space remains contamination-free. It’s also critical that there are segregated areas for staff food consumption. In addition, regular batch analysis is required to confirm <20ppm gluten presence to make the gluten-free claim on a product label.

Peri Eagleton, co-founder of Seggiano, an Italian baked goods and pasta brand, began her mission to improve Italy’s gluten free offering. “In Italy 10-15 years ago, gluten-free pasta could only be found in pharmacies and tasted like soggy stodge...The gluten-free biscuits available at the time tasted like sweetened dog rusks. It became a quest of ours to develop gluten-free alternatives worthy of celebration.

“Using alternative grains like teff, quinoa, lentils… without resorting to additives like gums and binders was our priority. Gluten-free biscuit production was an easier feat; our producers simply replaced wheat with nut flour or rice, oat and buckwheat flour.”


Italy, with its high wheat and semolina consumption, is now innovating to ensure it’s well positioned to support future generations with food intolerances. “Sales of our gluten-free products are certainly growing,” says Eagleton. “Most growth is driven by plant-based [diet] consumers, who seek high-protein sources such as lentils or chickpeas.”

Eagleton says: “I have genuine admiration for Italian food innovation and our most innovative producers have strong links to local university research labs. The enthusiasm for research, the skills and know-how we see applied to achieving great results over time mean that Italy will emerge as one of the best gluten-free food producers, despite (or due to) its national obsession with wheat.”

As gluten-free products boom thanks to investment in food technology across Italy, Italian coeliacs no longer need to feel like they’re missing out when their friends order a pizza Napoletana or a Tiramisù. It’s the little things, done right, that keep a food-oriented society together.

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