Why the Long Wait for Dunkin's Gluten-Free Donut?

Non Gluten-Free donuts Photograph by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Dunkin’ Donuts recently told Bloomberg News that it will launch gluten-free products later this year. The chain tested two—a cinnamon sugar cake doughnut and a blueberry muffin—in a handful of stores in Boston and Miami in late 2012 and are now testing them in Hartford, Conn. The glu-llergic, and their supporters, are rejoicing.

“It’s really taken our culture a long time to take gluten-free seriously,” says Shauna James Ahern, author of Gluten-Free Girl Everyday.

Gluten-free breads are widely available—why the long wait for a mass-produced doughnut? Dunkin’ Brands Chief Executive Nigel Travis says, “I think the difficult part of it is you have to make it in a [dedicated] gluten-free certified facility. You have to [individually] wrap the product. We’re kind of excited about it. I think it tastes pretty good.” The products are certified by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization.

In addition to the logistical nuisances of safely adding gluten-free items to a wheat-filled setting like Dunkin’ Donuts, there’s another obvious reason it’s taken this long for this donut to arrive: taste. Baking with gluten-free flours, which can be milled from any number of alternatives, including garbanzo beans, can be like switching from cow’s milk to rice milk: There’s a definite palate adjustment, says Carol Fenster, author of 1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes.

As Helen Melito, a postdoctoral food science researcher at North Carolina State University, wrote in a report in the Journal of Food Quality (pdf) about her efforts to make a gluten-free doughnut:

“Commercial GF flour and rice flours were not suitable for GF donut production if used alone. The primary ingredient in the commercial GF flour was garbanzo beans, which caused the final donuts to have a strong beany or grassy flavor. Donuts prepared using only rice flour staled rapidly and had a gritty mouthfeel.”

A blend of flours needs to be used for a more neutral taste (Dunkin’ uses a mix of rice flour and starch combinations such as tapioca and potato). Luckily, adding flavors, such as cinnamon sugar, as Dunkin’ has done, can help mask the unfamiliar taste.

Still, there’s the challenge with consistency, Fenster says. Gluten-free dough, even with added gum, doesn’t hold together as well as wheat. So maintaining that classic, circular doughnut shape is difficult. While Dunkin’ fries its gluten-free doughnuts, you can also bake them in a mold to keep them round. Still, they tend to come out denser and more cake-like than an ordinary doughnut (that’s why making a gluten-free muffin is easier). Airy doughnuts are particularly hard to make gluten-free. One person already complained on Twitter:

@mmacvean @glutenfreegirl @DunkinDonuts new donut isn’t too tasty! Falls apart like gluten free bread and the flavor is blah! — M.a.P. (@melanieskookoo) June 21, 2013

Another hurdle: shelf life. “Gluten-free products tend to stale very rapidly because there is no gluten to hold water and keep the product moist,” Melito wrote in an e-mail. That’s why many gluten-free breads are sold frozen.

Still, a tasty gluten-free doughnut is not impossible (I just had one from BabyCakes). “We will be extremely happy” when Dunkin’ launches its new products, says Fenster. “Companies are listening to our needs.” Now, about those munchkins ….