What is Gluten-Free Pasta?

Gluten-free pasta is the answer to all those people who suffer with coeliac disease and cannot process gluten.  It has become now a lifestyle choice for many who simply want a gluten-free diet whether they have a gluten sensitivity or not. All wheat and barley contain proteins such as gluten which irritate and cause inflammation of the intestine in those who are unable to digest this protein properly. The degree of intolerance depends on the individual but the only treatment possible for anyone with coeliac disease is to consume a gluten-free diet.

Gluten is the protein found in all wheat based foods. It is formed from two sub-units: gliadin and glutenin. These proteins are responsible for the elasticity and chewability or al dente nature of pasta. The presence of gluten is the most significant factor because of the way it affects cooking properties (Sozer, 2009). A high quality pasta has the following properties:-

  • low cooking loss,
  • low stickiness,
  • firm structure

A good-quality pasta is judged not only by its firmness but excellent cooking resistance where it does not break or fracture with heat (Gallagher, 2009; Lucisano et al., 2012).

Comparing the Effect of Cooking on Gluten-based and GF-Pasta

Cooking produces many different complex modifications to pasta because both heating and water uptake are involved. A traditional pasta made from durum wheat semolina relies on cooking for starch gelatinization and the partial disappearance of crystalline zones of amylopectin. There is leaching of amylose together with other soluble materials into the cooking water. the gluten network also forms during this phase which is described as a coagulation as the gluten alters its three-dimensional structure. Both effects occur at the same temperature. There is a rapid stiffening of this well-developed gluten network which traps swollen starch granules that dictates the quality of the pasta (Pagani et al., 2007).

Gluten-free pastas see a completely different situation. The absence of the gluten network means that starch gelatinization and retrogradation is now different. New structures are formed built around retrograded starch. 

Pasta and wheat noodles are thus judged on taste and texture by the quality of the gluten network. Replacing this structure in noodles is easier to adopt and manage because noodles prepared from other grains is part of the oriental culture. With pasta, Western tastes have adopted a more conservative attitude which makes any alternatives more difficult to market and commercialize.

The absence of gluten presents considerable technological and quality issues for formulators. Replacing the gluten network is a major challenge. Choosing suitable formulations and developing recipes with the correct amount of proteins, hydrocolloids and moisture will generate reasonable and desirable properties with caveats (Larrosa et al., 2016).

Pasta, noodles and bread contain varying amounts of protein.  It can range from 12% by weight found in weak flours for baked goods and in fresh pasta, to 19% used in strong flours for all sorts of baked goods. Wheat-based pasta is not a good source of protein because gluten is so poor in one key essential amino acid, L-lysine. For many in the world, wheat is the staple of the diet so supplementation with other proteins is needed.

Gluten-free pastas are mostly made with a single ingredient such as rice or maize (corn). The starch-based gluten free pastas (e.g. rice pastas, maize pastas) have a much higher glycemic index than wheat pasta.

The texture of pasta is generally attributed to the behaviour of amylose rather than amylopectin. A number of formulators are developing methods where consumers can also make their own pasta easily at home and in the kitchen using other types of flour. It should no longer be the preserve of the gluten-based flours when it comes to domestic pasta making. It is acknowledge though that achieving a GF pasta virtually identical to gluten pasta is still a pipe dream (Marti et al., 2014). GF pasta has relatively poor cooking properties as well as lower nutritional value than many would like to believe. As with gluten-based pastas amongst other gluten-based foods, improving the nutritional value by fortification is often followed.

Complex Formulation Studies for Gluten-Free Pasta

Huang et al., (2001) used response surface methods to predict the sensory attributes of GF pasta and so optimise sensory properties. The researchers used seven different polysaccharides based on 5 independent variables of locust bean gum (10-40g), xanthan gum (25-40g), modified potato starch (30-40g), tapioca starch (63-90g) and potato starch (32-45g) with two fixed variables of 50g rice flour and 250g yellow corn flour. each formulation amount was 500g. The pasta was made with distilled water and the dough extruded through a single screw pasta extruder with a 1.5 mm noodle shape. Sensory evaluation as conducted using a 10 point line scale for surface smoothness, adhesiveness and cohesiveness of chew down, hardness of first bite and any off-flavours versus a control. Fresh pasta was dried at 90C for 5 hours and then boiled before sensory evaluation in tap water for 13 minutes. From all these studies, the most desirable pasta was made from locust bean gum (40g), xanthan gum (40g), modified potato starch (35g), tapioca starch (113g), potato starch (57g), corn flour (250g) and rice flour (50g).

Clemente et al., (2001) examined GF pasta for a homemade concept containing rice flour (350g), cornstarch (150g), potato starch (150g) and eight whole eggs (420g). This was compared to a control of typical gluten-based pasta. They examined sensory elements as well as various physiological parameters with 20 healthy medical students. The use of Asian glutinuous rice flour produced a better texture but the sense of fullness and satiety was less than eating the same amount of control gluten-based pasta.

Ferreira et al., 2016 assessed mixes of rice, sorghum, corn flour and potato starch to make a GF-pasta. The use of sorghum is the most interesting feature. The best pasta mix which scored highly on a number of fronts was sorghum flour, rice flour and potato starch.

The alternative grain pastas or gluten-free pasta include the following:

Buckwheat

A flour which is dark and speckled with a distinctive flavour. The pasta created is dark and nutty and ideal for light sauces. Buckwheat soba noodles are produced mainly for Asian markets but would also be suitable for Western style pastas.

Sweetcorn (Maize)

The whole kernels are ground to a sweet flour. It is packaged as cornmeal flour where it makes a soft dough. It can be successfully mixed with corn and quinoa. It is ideal in small shapes such as orzo, conchiglie and elbows including macaroni.

Millet

A wholegrain millet is suitable for mild flavoured flour. It is the ideal substitute but not suitable for strong flavoured sauces. Often found as spaghetti and fusilli.

Rice Flour

Rice flour is widely used as the main alternative to wheat in many gluten-free foods let alone pasta. It is often found in rice vermicelli and stick noodles. The main component is rice flour and rice starch but brown rice flour is becoming increasingly popular. The flour has a light texture, white colour and mild bland flavour which balances out more strongly flavoured flours. Quick-cooking noodles and pasta are also possible. It is widely used because it is highly digestible with hypoallergenic properties (Fabian & Ju, 2011).

Most rice flour is manufactured from broken grain. This is commercially removed during milling because broken grains reduce the value of whole grain rice. Rice noodles have an extensive starch network (Kohlwey et al., 1995). This is because they are manufactured from long-grain rice flour that has an intermediate-to-high amylose content (>20g/100g).

The particle size of the flour produced has profound effects on the quality of all gluten-free foods. When flour is produced, grinding creates various profound changes based on differing levels of mechanical and thermal energy that lead to differing particle sizes, morphology and chemistry. Pastas of varying quality depend as much on flour particle size as they do the ingredient. It’s not clear though what that impact is because not a lot of research has been conducted on this quality characteristic save in bread making.

One of the disadvantages of rice pasta is its high cooking loss (CL) plus a very sticky texture rather than the characteristic elastic chew of ordinary gluten based pasta (Bousla et al., 2017). This research group prepared precooked rice pasta enriched with different levels of legume flours such as yellow pea, red lentil and chickpea. The levels were from 10g/100g pasta to 30g/100 g pasta. They produced a spaghetti using a single-screw extrusion cooker. Adding legume flour helped decrease the expansion ratio,  colour lightness and hardness whilst increasing the yellow colour, adhesiveness and firmness. All the gluten free pastas had a lower cooking loss than the rice pasta alone and better sensory attributes. The best result was obtained with a supplementation of 30g/100g.

When legume flours are used to supplement rice pasta for example (Bousla et al., 2017), the protein, ash and fibre content increases. This has also been observed with addition of bean flour to rice pasta Giuberti et al., (2015), in precooked rice-yellow pea pasta (Bouasla et al., 2016) and with spaghetti made with wheat semolina and different legume flours (Zhao et al., 2005)

Taste Republic produce a linguini which cooks in just three minutes. It uses mainly brown rice flour which is bolstered with potato starch and tapioca starch. A typical pasta is produced with whole egg and enriched with egg white. Less than 2% of the formulation is xanthan gum, salt and glucono-delta-lactone. Explore Cuisine also launched recently their Brown Rice Pad Thai noodles retailing at 28 USD in 2013 as an easy to prepare offer. The serving size is 2 oz.

Barilla, being the biggest pasta producer of all launched GF-elbows which is primarily a composite of corn- and rice flour with the addition of mono and diglycerides which serve as emulsifiers. They produce a range of volumes. Such a product retails at 21.50 USD per box of 6 servings.

Almond Flour

Not that common and more expensive than most. Capellos launched an Almond Flour Spaghetti in 2020, which is also made with eggs and tapioca flour. The offer is in multi-serve sizes for the consumer on a paleo and gluten-free diet. The claim here is grain-free and is non-GM, kosher and dairy free too. It also has 4g protein per serving.  It’s also very quick cooking at just 75 seconds and so meets the needs of a ready-cooked pasta suitable for quick service.  These are available in the freezer-aisle and were retailing at 11.50 USD in 2023.

isiBisi (Italy) produce a rice and corn flour pasta.

Sorghum

Often used in South American pastas and noodles. A very effective ingredient in mixes rather than on its own. Sorghum flour presents as a light grey colour. It is of heterogeneous size because it is ground with its shell. Usually available at 250 microns. It has good swelling capacity for baking.

Egg Whites

The replacement of gluten itself is feasible if all this protein can be removed. Egg whites have potential for gluten functionality. Along with soy protein isolate, egg white protein has also been added to gluten-free bread to improve its functionality. It has both binding, coagulating, foaming and emulsifying properties.

Rachman et al., (2020) added soy protein and egg white protein to a banana and cassava flour blend (75:25) to create gluten-free pasta. The levels of protein inclusion was up to 15% w/w of the composite flour with comparison with a gluten-based pasta as a control.

Konjac flour

We’ve discussed konjac noodles (shirataki noodles) elsewhere but its not unheard of to have spaghetti which is what It’s Skinny have created. This retails at 23 USD in 2023. It’s marketed as a low carb and low calorie, fully cooked and ready to eat product. This is gluten-free and also contains some oat flour. A serving has 4.5 calories only. Shirataki noodles have a slight fishy note which is authentic for this type of noodle.

Legumes

Yellow peas

Whole yellow pea (Pisum sativum L.) pasta is popular but it can also be added to other alternative grains such as rice as we noted earlier.

ZENB Plant-based pasta which is made from 100% yellow pea and is clearly gluten-free. It also has a different nutritional profile. Traditional pasta has 11g protein, 3 g fibre and 61g net carbohydrate. The ZENB product has a 17g protein, 11g fibre and 43g net carbohydrate. These are both for a 3 ounce serving. The net carbohydrate content relates to the total carbohydrate minus the dietary fiber. pasta prepared from green pea is not as sweet. A number of consumers are not convinced by the just pea pasta because it does not have the taste nor texture although that hasn’t been elaborated upon.

Chickpea (Cicer arietinum L.) pasta is now available but sensory tests indicate it disintegrates more readily than pasta produced solely from yellow pea. It hasn’t prevented Explore Cuisine producing their version of Organic Chickpea Fusili or radiatori in an 8 oz. box. Look for Kaizen Low Carb pasta Fusilli made with Lupini bean flour, fava bean flour, tapioca starch and some xanthan gum. This retails at 37 USD per box.

Red lentil (Lens culinaris L.) adds additional fibre to other pastas. Explore Cuisine offer green lentil penne retailing at 26.60 USD per box ( 24 servings). The same brand offer a black bean spaghetti which has a high protein claim as well as being organic and vegan.

Soy Beans/Edamame Flour

Explore Cuisine produce a wide range of alternative grain pastas. One unique offer is a 2oz. box of dried organic Edamame spaghetti that retails at 26.60 USD. Edamame are green soybeans.

Pasta Made with Ancient Grains

Fusilli was prepared from whole grain flour which was gluten-free, and without eggs. The flours were from corn, millet, brown rice sorghum flours (Kahlon et al., 2013b). A typical dough formulation was 90% whole grain 6% black gram flour and 4% guar gum.  using 123 in-house volunteers, the whole grain fusilli had better colour and appearance. The order of preference was then brown rice and sorghum and lastly millet. The other interesting snippet of information was the flavour preference in descending order: corn (83%) then sorghum (79%), rice (77%) and finally millet (50%).

A very closely related study by the same researchers looked at the same ingredients in a paste but with  whole garbanzo flour to increase the protein content (Kahlon et al., 2013a). Sensory acceptance for brown rice–garbanzo and corn–garbanzo pasta was
similar and significantly higher than millet–garbanzo and sorghum–garbanzo pasta.

Colour

Consumers prefer a pasta that has a light to rich, creamy yellow colour. There are novelty pasta foods coloured with other ingredients such as sepia (cuttlefish) ink, beetroot and other colouring agents but these are not main stream products.

The aroma and flavour of the buckwheat pasta was significantly better than pasta made from amaranth and quinoa. Pasta from teff flour has a better texture and mouthfeel but not necessarily flavour or aroma (Kahlon et al., 2015).

Why we need other ingredients in gluten-free pasta

Semolina paste, when it contains gluten, is generally regarded as superior in quality to pastas and noodles made with non-gluten flour. Manufacturers find non-gluten flour to produce pasta which cannot tolerate being overcooked, a tendency to be stickier than it should be and suffer from greater cooking loss. The addition of texturisers helps improve non-gluten based pasta by reducing the impact of these defects.

Hydrocolloids and gums will lend a gluten-free pasta better than average consistency at ambient temperature. The pasta also has better body, is firmer with a less sticky mouthfeel. Gums also improve the rehydration rate of pasta because they have such good water-binding properties. A number of hydrocolloids are employed such as locust bean gum, gum arabic, carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) and finally xanthan gum.

Xanthan gum is regularly added to gluten-free pasta doughs. Normally, using flours other than wheat produces a much more crumbly dough which often cracks. Adding about 1% w/w xanthan gum helps keep the dough flexible and can be rolled and kneaded much more easily.

Pectin has been added to pasta made from maize/corn flour enriched with chickpea flour. They observed the lowest degree of gelatinization compared to any controls maize from maize flour as well as pasta prepared with agar and guar gum (Padalino et al., ****).

Glucono-delta-lactone (E575) has a number of functions in gluten-free pasta. It is a sequestering agent, adds acidity and drops the pH slight. The change in pH helps with protein structure. It also has a slight taste.

The Manufacturing Processes for Gluten-Free Noodles and Pasta

Gluten-free pasta and noodles are still manufactured both in the home and commercially using traditional processes that would be applied to making Asian noodles. Handling starch is the main element in the whole process and is as key to noodles as it is to pasta. Making noodles is not easy on an industrial scale even if the laboratory-scale product development suggests otherwise. The control of gelatinization and subsequent retrogradation is difficult to manage. It needs plenty of work to create a suitable dough structure along with copious quantities of water and plenty of energy input to both create and heat the dough, and then cool it.

The main method is extrusion and is the best suited to pasta making. The process relies on a high heat and short time system for which there is great understanding.

References

Bouasla, A.Wójtowicz, A., & Zidoune, M. N. (2017). Gluten-free precooked rice pasta enriched with legumes flours: Physical properties, texture, sensory attributes and microstructureLebensmittel-Wissenschaft and Technologie75, pp. 569577https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lwt.2016.10.005

Chillo, S.; Laverse, J.M.; Falcone, P.M.; Del Nobile, M.A. (2007) Effect of carboxymethylcellulose and pregelatinized corn starch on the quality of amaranthus spaghetti. J. Food Eng. 83, pp. 492–500

Clemente, G., Giacco, R., Lasorella, G., Coppola, S., Trapanese, E., Torre, P., & Greco, L. (2001). Homemade gluten-free pasta is as well or better digested than gluten-containing pasta. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition32(1), pp. 110-113

Fabian, C., & Ju, Y. H. (2011). A review on rice bran protein: its properties and extraction methods. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition51(9), pp. 816-827.

Gallagher, E. (2009) Gluten-Free Food Science and Technology. Wiley-Blackwell ISBN 978-1-4051-5915-9

Huang, J. C., Knight, S., & Goad, C. (2001). Model prediction for sensory attributes of nongluten pasta. Journal of Food Quality24(6), pp. 495-511 (Article)

Kahlon, T.S. & Chiu, M.-C.M. (2015). Teff, buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth: Ancient whole grain gluten-free egg-free pasta. Food and Nutrition Sciences, 6, 1460.

Kahlon, T., Milczarek, R. & Chiu, M. (2013a). Whole grain gluten-free egg-free high protein pasta. Vegetos-An International Journal of Plant Research, 26, pp. 65–71

Kahlon, T. S., Milczarek, R. R., & Chiu, M. M. (2013b). Whole Grain Gluten-free Egg-free Pasta. Cereal Foods World58(1), pp. 4-7.

Kohlwey, D.E., Kendall, J.H., & Mohindra, R.B. (1995). Using the physical properties of rice as a guide to formulation. Cereal Foods World, 40, pp. 728-732

Larrosa, V., Lorenzo, G., Zaritzky, N., & Califano, A. (2016). Improvement of the texture and quality of cooked gluten-free pasta. LWT, 70, pp. 96-103.

Lucisano, M., Cappa, C., Fongaro, L. & Mariotti, M. (2012). Characterisation of gluten-free pasta through conventional and innovative methods: evaluation of the cooking behaviour. Journal of Cereal Science, 56, pp. 667–675

Marti, A., & Pagani, M. A. (2013). What can play the role of gluten in gluten free pasta? Trends in Food Science & Technology, 31(1), pp. 63-71

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Mastromatteo, M.; Chillo, S.; Iannetti, M.; Civica, V.; Del Nobile, M.A. (2011) Formulation optimisation of gluten-free functional spaghetti based on quinoa, maize and soy flours. Int. J. Food Sci. Technol. 46, pp. 1201–1208

Padalino, L., Conte, A., & Del Nobile, M. A. (2016). Overview on the general approaches to improve gluten-free pasta and bread. Foods5(4), pp. 87

Phongthai, S., D’Amico, S., Schoenlechner, R., Homthawornchoo, W., & Rawdkuen, S. (2017). Effects of protein enrichment on the properties of rice flour based gluten-free pasta. LWT80, pp. 378-385.

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Sozer, N. (2009). Reological properties of rice pasta dough supplemented with proteins and gums. Food Hydrocolloids, 23, pp. 849-855

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