More farmers are investing in niche or alternative crops to try and take advantage of the growing popularity of gluten-free food.

Over the last decade, gluten-free food has gone from being ridiculed for its lacklustre taste and texture to a way of life for hundreds of thousands of Australians.

What started as a dietary necessity for people with coeliac disease has gained much wider acceptance, with an estimated 10 to 15 per cent of the population avoiding gluten - a complex set of proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and oats.

Brett Ryan has been growing buckwheat near Blayney in the central west of New South Wales for 10 years.

Buckwheat is a gluten-free seed crop that despite its name is not related to wheat, but instead comes from the same family as rhubarb and sorrel. 

He also grows wheat and canola, but says buckwheat has been his best performing crop and plans to make more room for it to take advantage of the gluten-free market. 

"I think it's here to stay. I think people's diets will change and it's certainly going to be an issue as years go on," he told Landline.

Mr Ryan sends his crop to the major buckwheat processor in Australia, Geoff Brown, who dehulls, cleans and colour grades the seeds at his plant at Parkes in NSW.

He used to export pretty much all of it to Japan for the soba noodle market, but now the majority of his buyers are local gluten-free food manufacturers.

Despite competition from Chinese imports, he is confident the locally grown seed has a bright future in Australia.

"China is rapidly growing. They're producing other grain crops instead of buckwheat and they can't keep being the supplier of such cheap product forever," he said.

"We'll become more competitive and I guess in five years time maybe we'll be producing a lot more buckwheat for the Australian market."

When it comes to gluten-free grains or seeds, Tasmanian farmers are investing in their fair share, from quinoa - which has already gained a strong following in the domestic marketplace - to millet, which is often dismissed as bird seed. 

"[Millet] hasn't been explored at all in Australia. There's a lot more interest in Europe and the United States," millet producer Bob Reid said.

"I think Australia is just on the verge. I think Australians are at the point where they realise there are other foods out there that they could be exploiting."

Bob Reid co-owns Tas Global Seeds, a business originally built around pasture production.

But the scientist, whose daughter has coeliac disease, is now focusing on improving more than livestock feed.

"We can grow gluten-free crops from probably the sub-tropics right through to the colder parts of Tasmania," he said.

"You'll find in the next 20 years there'll be quite a few companies specialising in exactly this."

Mr Reid has spent much of his career collecting plants from all corners of the globe and one gluten-free crop he sees a big future in is teff - a grain native to the highlands of Ethiopia.

After starting with just 20 seeds seven years ago, the company recently harvested its first commercial crop.

The tiny seed is often ground into flour and used to make a special Ethiopian flat-bread called injera.

Mr Reid believes it will find fans among more than the local Ethiopian community, despite the growing variety of gluten-free flours on sale.

"If you're a person who is a coeliac you'll want all six or seven on your kitchen shelf, all the time," he said.

It is not just gluten-free grains and seeds being ground up.

In Queensland's Atherton Tablelands, former banana grower Robert Watkins stumbled across a way to value add when tonnes of ladyfingers were being discarded during a glut a few years ago.

"There was a green banana sitting on the asphalt that had been dried in the sun and I actually accidentally ran over the banana on the asphalt and all this powder went up in the air and I stopped and I said wow what is this and that's how really it started," he said.

The farmer turned food manufacturer is now drying, peeling and milling fruit, which has been rejected cause of skin blemishes, to produce 300 kilograms of gluten-free banana flour a week.

He says he has developed the technology to set up a plant that will increase that output to 6,000 kilograms.

"This is not a fad," he said.

"The fad is only the beginning. We're getting back to making real food. We're going back to traditional food."

Despite the growing interest in gluten free food, Australia's major commercial wheat breeder says it is not impacting on the country's major grain and its growers.

"Our primary clients ultimately in the consumer is the export market and we haven't seen any decline," Steve Jefferies from Australian Grain Technologies said.

"I think there's probably more people in Asia going towards wheat products away from rice products as their expendable income becomes greater."

The Adelaide-based company looks at up to 100,000 varieties of wheat a year, but only three are usually released.

One of the priorities is finding a wheat that will perform well in the commercial baking industry and that is where the gluten comes in.

"Gluten is the thing about wheat that makes wheat special," Mr Jefferies said.

"If you didn't have gluten the whole thing would just fall apart. It's the gluten that binds it all together and makes it stretchy like that."

The benefits of a gluten-free lifestyle are advocated by celebrities like actress Gwenyth Paltrow and tennis player Novak Djokovic.

But researchers at Victoria's Monash University say while gluten is the bad guy when it comes to coeliac disease, it is not necessarily the culprit when it comes to other gastro-intestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Dr Jane Muir believes it is the sugars or fructans in wheat that are to blame rather than the proteins.

"We've shown well controlled studies with people who have got irritable bowel that it's these short-chain carbohydrates that cause gastro intestinal symptoms and not the gluten," she said.

While many gluten-free foods are also low in fructans, Dr Muir says people with irritable bowel syndrome may be limiting their diet more than they need to. 

However she says with one in seven people suffering IBS, the demand for gluten or fructan-free food is not a fad, but a sustainable market that provides opportunities for farmers to diversify.

 

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