One day earlier this year, Tom Gumpel left work feeling terrible. The head baker of Panera Bread–the Downton Abbey of fast food with a nice classy-to-trashy ratio–Gumpel had been tasked with coming up with a gluten-free product for the company to offer. But he’d failed. What’s more, he didn’t even know if success was possible. He didn’t know what to do next. He wasn’t even particularly interested in doing anything gluten free. He was a baker, after all, not a trend follower!
The former dean of the Bakery and Pastry College at the Culinary Institute of America, Gumpel is rapturous about bread, and excitedly says things like: “Long cool-fermentation bread made from ancient sprouted grains are not just good for you, they’re like the best foods on earth!”
He’d come to Panera under the assumption that he’d get to do more–and more creative–things with bread. “I came into this whole thing kicking and screaming,” he says, from the company’s offices in Saint Louis. “I haven’t come across a gluten-free bread that’s even somewhat edible, or palatable, even. I mean, we could have jumped into this two years ago and put out a rice flower roll. That was a nutritionally baseless gluten-free product, and it wouldn’t have been right for us.”
Gluten is a mixture of two proteins that’s found in everything from soy sauce to beer. It’s especially crucial in bread. Think of the essential properties of a loaf of bread–its sponginess, its airiness, its fantastically chewy texture–and you’re pretty much just describing what gluten does. Making bread without it can be very difficult.
“Imagine the 25 or 30 ingredients you have to put in place to make up for what gluten provides: gums, starches, all this stuff,” Gumpel says.
While writing this story, I picked up a bag of Udi’s Everything Inside Gluten Free Bagels, which looked more like short dinner rolls with holes cut in the middle. Appearances aside, they actually tasted amazingly breadlike: chewy, springy, and they didn’t disintegrate after I bit into them. But just as Gumpel predicted, the ingredients list was very long, including things like tapioca maltodextrin, xanthan gum, cultured corn syrup solids, and “enzymes.”
When Panera tried to do something similar, he told me, the results were basically a disaster. “We said, ‘Wow. This is not who we are.’ I left the lab that day saying, ‘I can’t see this. I can’t test this and get it out to our customers with any kind of integrity or pride.’”
Was Gumpel doomed? Is it even possible to make good gluten-free bread? And why was Panera even bothering in the first place?
Bread has been one of humanity’s staple foods, going back around 10,000 years. To this day, forms of bread are one of the foundational foods of cultures from Ethiopia to India to Latin America. And yet bread is under attack. The idea that bread–or more specifically, gluten–is unhealthy has gripped the global consciousness, and that doesn’t appear to be letting go.
The gluten-free movement is amorphous and hard to pin down, much like the “toxins” that are supposedly being flushed out of your body by a juice cleanse. However, most people with a gluten problem generally come in one of two groups. In one of them are people physiologically unable to process gluten: these folks have celiac disease. A 2012 Mayo Clinic survey found that just under 2 million people in the United States suffer from it (there is also an even smaller number of people with serious wheat allergies). An additional 18 million people claim to be “gluten-sensitive,” or that eating it makes them feel bad in some undefined way. This group makes up a large portion of the gluten-free movement.
A 2013 study by Peter Gibson, the same scientist who first found evidence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), found, “In a placebo-controlled, cross-over rechallenge study, we found no evidence of specific or dose-dependent effects of gluten in patients with NCGS.” In short, at least according to one study, people who claim to be gluten sensitive may not be so sensitive, after all.
No matter how imaginary or not its benefits, the gluten-free market is a very real thing. From 2009 to 2014, retail sales of gluten-free foods grew at a rate of about 34%; in 2014, total sales of gluten-free products were $973 million, according to market research firm Packaged Facts; the overall gluten-free market, according to market-research firm Mintel, is estimated to be around $8.8 billion. A January 2015 Nielsen report on the food market found that bread sales were down 3% in 2014, even while sales of cookies, chocolate, and chips were all growing. That same survey sorted foods into the categories healthy, semi-healthy, and indulgent: sugar-laden things like sports drinks and “dairy-based shakes” were considered healthy, while bread was only semi-healthy.
Panera is not immune from these trends; its net income has been falling this year, including 12% in Q1 and 15% in Q2. In a written statement, the company attributed that to “significant periods of investment in the long-term success of our business,” including improving digital and mobile access. Still, it’s hard not to see these broader trends at play.
That night he left work feeling defeated, Tom Gumpel had a revelation about his gluten-free failure.
“It doesn’t have to be a loaf of bread,” he thought. “If you have to use all these extra ingredients to lift a loaf of bread, just make it a small roll. Why don’t we make a focaccia roll, so we don’t have this uphill battle of making this structure?”
Over the phone Gumpel says: “So I went back to the lab the next morning and made a focaccia roll, and it has not changed that much since the first day I played with it.”
That roll is made from sorghum, a naturally gluten-free grain. It’s full of sprouted seeds like broccoli, flax, and chia. It will be available next fall at Panera locations around the country. It looks, essentially, like a yellow hamburger bun covered in black speckles.
I sampled the product myself, but needed an expert to help me to determine how good it is.
So I had one sent to April Peveteaux, an LA-based celiac sufferer and author of the blog-to-book Gluten Is My Bitch. After she received it, I called Peveteaux to get her opinion on Gumpel’s work.
She sighed deeply.
“It’s so sad,” she says.
The company had shipped her roll to an LA-area location, and some miscommunication with the staff there meant they’d required her to stay in the restaurant to eat it. This did not put Peveteaux at ease. “I’ve never been in a Panera in my life and I’m a little panicky right now. I’m surrounded by bread! I’m a celiac! I feel like I’m at war and I’m totally surrounded!”
This was not like my experience: I ate mine in relative luxury, having had it hand-delivered by one of the company’s publicists. My rolls–one plain and one toasted–came completely plain. Since Peveteaux was in a restaurant, she convinced them to add turkey and cheese to her untoasted bun. This didn’t go well.
“The sandwich was definitely falling apart,” she said. “It had that grainy, dry, falling-apart thing that happens to so many mass-produced breads that are gluten-free. It just kinda happens.”
Peveteaux eventually scraped the ingredients from the first bun into the second. Sadly, that one also began to disintegrate. I asked her to describe the buns, and she paused before saying, “The mouthfeel is . . . crumbly.”
I’m sorry to say that I agree. I started with the untoasted roll. It had no elasticity, and I found it aggressively dry. Was it squeaking as I bit it, or was that my imagination? It was so dry that, feeling a sense of charity, I wrote in my notes: “Your saliva kind of melts it eventually?”
When you bite into it, crumbs fall onto the table. At a certain point, I just crushed pieces of it between my thumb and forefinger until it disappeared (which didn’t take long). The toasted one was much better. Gumpel explained that heated bread tastes better. But to say it was “better” is not to say it came anywhere near actual bread.
“I don’t mean to be a dick, but it’s just really not good,” Peveteaux says, with notes of defeat in her voice. “Honestly, I hate to do that because I want people to try this stuff more, I want people to experiment with gluten-free. There’s people who live in the middle of America who don’t have access to a lot of stuff, but might be close to a Panera, so it would be great if they had good gluten-free stuff. But it’s just really, really not good.”
At the end of the day, Panera has a very specific mission for this roll. While the actual product is gluten free, Panera only refers to it as “gluten-conscious.” That’s because the moment the roll leaves its plastic sleeve, it’s in an intensely gluten-rich environment. So, really, the roll is only for people who are going gluten-free by choice.
“When it comes to sandwiches, and especially bread, we want the person’s who’s taking the route of gluten free to have that option,” Gumpel explains.
Peveteaux, for her part, loves bread and can’t fathom why someone would willingly go gluten-free. “I was diagnosed almost five years ago, right at the beginning of the sort of zeitgeist of it,” she says. “But I really don’t get it! As someone who can’t eat gluten, I really want to eat gluten! I don’t know why anyone would want to do this.”