Coping with the Cost of Gluten Free Foods

Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity do not consider your address, or examine your bank account before they decide to strike you. Sadly there is nothing cheap about eating gluten free. The explosion of available products has done little to bring down the prices. But there are ways to cope.

Facing the Problem

Limited finances can greatly affect how well you are able to maintain a gluten free diet. Not only is the actual cost a problem, but selection of products, and how far you must travel to get them, can also be major issues.

In April 2018 a study, published by dovepress.com, was done in northwestern Mexico to look at how cost and access to gluten free products affected the study participants, all of whom were on doctor-prescribed, gluten free diets. The study included 36 persons, 16 supermarkets and 10 health food stores. Here is what they found.

  • Only 4.3% of gluten containing products had a gluten free counterpart in the stores, so availability was quite limited.
  • The gluten free counterparts, which were available, were 190% to 1088% more expensive.
  • All 36 respondents said they had trouble complying with their diet due to the high cost;
  • 30 said they also struggled with lack of access to products;
  • 35 were afraid of dining out;
  • 32 had limited their social activities because of their diet; and
  • 30 had problems traveling.

Canada’s Dalhousie Medical School compared 56 gluten free products with their gluten containing counterparts. They found:

  • The average unit cost of something gluten free was $1.71 while the average for a similar gluten containing product was $0.61.
  • Examples given were Betty Crocker brownie mix–gluten free was $.38 per ounce while regular was $.16 per ounce.
  • Gluten free crackers were 467% more expensive than Ritz crackers for every 100 grams;
  • Gluten free corn flakes were 191% more expensive, per 100 grams;
  • Gluten free flour was 760% more, per 100 grams;
  • Gluten free chocolate chip cookie mix was 238% more, per 100 grams.

Here in the center of the U.S., I must drive twenty miles to reach the two closest stores that have gluten free products. Once there, I buy my husband a 24 oz. loaf of wheat bread for $1.23, while I buy myself a 15 oz. loaf of multigrain, gluten free bread for $4.98. The rest of my shopping experience mirrors what the Canadian study found. It is discouraging! The people I personally know who tried eating gluten free simply because they wanted to lose weight or “be more healthy” have all abandoned a strict diet due to the struggle with cost and availability. Only those, like myself, who have seen significant health improvements, soldier bravely on.

Reasons for the Cost

Like any designer product, you pay for the label. However, this label mandates strict standards.

  1. Every ingredient, from field, to processing, to packaging, must be free from contamination.
  2. A gluten free loaf of bread may take as many as twenty ingredients to compensate for the lack of gluten, and those ingredients cost approximately two to three times more.
  3. The manufacturer has extra expenses for certifying and labeling.

In addition to these logical facts, gluten free is big business! When it is estimated that 55% of Americans spend 30% or more of their grocery budget for gluten free foods each year, and 57% have tried new gluten free products in the past year, businesses are going to keep riding the wave of popularity. They will also invest money in developing new products, which is the positive side of expensive prices.

Coping with the Cost

In short, adjust your attitude, and be creative.

  1. Stop buying prepackaged products. Just like anything else in the grocery store, pre-made, prepackaged products are the most expensive and usually the least healthy products. Gluten free is no exception.
  2. Plan meals, plan your budget, plan to sacrifice. Remember the saying: If you don’t plan to succeed, you are planning to fail. Planning not only helps you save money, but it can also reduce your stress. Focus on what you can control, not on all the things you can’t have.
  3. Eat fewer grains and more vegetables, nuts, seeds, eggs and meats.
  4. Make your own flour. Find a cheap and easy recipe in my blog Best Value in Gluten Free Flour.
  5. Buy in bulk. Since gluten free products are seldom ever on sale in the grocery store, this can save both time and money.
  6. Shop Ethnic Markets. This is not possible where I live, but I’ve been told that this can be a cheaper source for things such as lentils, millet, chickpeas, buckwheat, and other gluten free staples. Plus, you can be inspired to introduce new foods into your diet.
  7. Inventory your pantry and freezer. Then go to www.supercook.com, enter your inventory (gluten free grains and flours, and dairy free alternatives are available), and get recipes for making dishes with what you have on hand.
  8. Check out this book for more recipes and ideas: Gluten-Free on a Shoestring: 125 Easy Recipes for Eating Well on the Cheap
  9. Spend less time in the gluten free aisle and more time in the regular grocery aisles. Some stores mix gluten free products in with other groceries, and these are often more competitively priced than what is in the gluten free aisle. Read labels and find naturally gluten free alternatives. I never buy granola bars from the gluten free section, instead I’ve found a couple kinds (one is a cheap house brand) that are wheat, malt, barley and rye free, and half the price, with all the other granola bars. I do the same when buying cereal. (If you are severely gluten intolerant know that these regular products are not free from cross-contamination.)
  10. Think out of the box and substitute. I never buy expensive gluten free crackers. Instead I buy cheap corn tortilla chips. They do just fine in soup. Corn tortillas can also replace bread for a roll-up instead of a sandwich. I’ve also found gluten free, rice flour tortillas which are much cheaper than gluten free bread.

Don’t Let Your Diet Define You

Focus on managing both your diet and your budget. You are bigger than they are. They are within your control. See the struggle as an opportunity to learn and develop new habits. Give yourself grace by acknowledging that you are in a tough spot between the demands of your gut and the needs of your wallet, but don’t give up!

Share below your struggles, or the tricks you use to balance food and finances. I look forward to hearing from you.

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