Gluten-free food: why is it more expensive?

June 3, 2019 6:49 am Published by 3 Comments

There are some nice surprises in the ‘free from’ aisles of the supermarkets. Crumpets! Ciabatta! Pretzels! Nachos! From crackers to caterpillar cakes, you can now find pretty much everything you need in a gluten-free variety, in more or less every supermarket. The spread of gluten-free food in recent years has in part been behind the government’s decision to stop funding almost all gluten-free food on prescription. When it’s so easily available, they argue, there’s no need to issue prescriptions for it.

Any gluten-free surprises in these aisles?

Of course, that argument’s a bit horse-before-the-cart. The supermarkets, well aware of government spending issues, had realized quite a bit sooner that gluten-free food might turn them a profit, if there was sufficient demand.

And that’s where a problem arises. One of the less nice surprises in the free from aisle is the cost of many of the products. Why is gluten-free food more expensive? Does it have to be? Is it to do with production – or the cost of testing?

Or…is it a simple case of someone profiting from someone else’s condition? And is there a cheaper alternative?

More expensive?

Let’s compare two supermarket loaves of bread. Tesco’s ‘free from sliced seeded loaf’, at 550g, costs £2.10, or £0.38 per 100g. It’s made from a blend of tapioca starch, rice flour and potato starch (topped with mixed seeds).

Tesco also produces a ‘multiseed batch’ made from wheat flour. It weighs 800g and costs £0.85 (£0.11 per 100g). You can go more upmarket, into their ‘finest’ seeded range, but even here, prices peak at about £1.10 per 800g, or £0.14 per 100g. The gluten-free bread is therefore between two and three times the cost of ‘normal’ wheat bread.

There are a number of reasons generally given for this.

Gluten-free food is produced in dedicated gluten-free facilities. Here, all transportation, machinery and equipment will either be used solely for gluten-free products (a small market, making overheads higher proportionally) or will be extensively (and expensively) cleaned in between other products.

Gluten-free food is often more complicated to make. It’s easier to use a traditional recipe for a wheat-flour loaf than it is to source and mix a variety of different starches and flours for a gluten-free loaf. The extra ingredients (often not produced on a huge scale themselves) and the processes of product development bring costs.

The gluten-free testing and certification regime carries costs. In the UK, food that’s labelled ‘gluten-free’ has to be tested to ensure that it contains no more than 20ppm (parts per million) of gluten. It’s a rigorous and time-consuming procedure.

While gluten-free food is growing in popularity, it still has a much smaller customer base than standard food – and those customers are a captive audience. Issues of supply and demand conspire to raise prices, and there are fewer economies of scale.

But…

Not everything on the supermarket ‘free from’ shelves is, in fact, more expensive. Let’s take a look at two Tesco caterpillar cakes. Free from gluten, wheat and milk, Carl the Caterpillar grins up at us from the birthday range. He’s got an ingredients list the length of a millipede, but his main body is made from a mixture of rice flour, cocoa powder, tapioca flour, potato flour and maize flour, with thickeners, emulsifiers, stabilisers, and so on. He costs £6 and gets pretty good reviews.

Curly the Caterpillar, meanwhile, is Tesco’s standard, wheat-based caterpillar cake. He too comes in at £6.

When it comes to birthday cakes, gluten-free and standard are entirely the same. There is, of course, always an element of discretion in supermarket pricing – and this can lead some gluten-free consumers to fear that they’re being fleeced by major retailers.

What are the alternatives?

A great deal of perfectly standard food is naturally gluten-free – and therefore won’t cost coeliacs any more than anyone else! Rice, for example, is fine for those who can’t tolerate gluten. Potatoes, pulses, fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh fish, meat, eggs and dairy products are all free from gluten. If you put these at the core of your meals, you’ll have no need for specialist products.

Previously, those eating gluten-free obtained a lot of what they needed on prescription. While prescriptions have mostly stopped (there are some exceptions), many pharmacies continue to stock a range of their most popular previous requests. If you’re new to eating gluten-free, it’s a good idea to check out what your pharmacy can offer – not least because it may be at a lower price than in the supermarket.

Buying from an online specialist gluten-free provider, like Naturally Good Food, is also a good way to cut costs. At NGF, we don’t have supermarket overheads (or a supermarket mentality), so can bring a wide range of gluten-free food to our customers at the lowest price. You can see all our gluten-free food here.

Naturally Good Food sells a great selection of unusual, but natural, gluten-free ingredients. We’ve got everything you need, for example, to make your own perfect gluten-free loaves, cakes, bakes, pancakes and so on. We’ve a huge range of gluten-free flours and starches, with the necessary gums and husks to retain moisture. We’ve got pasta and noodles made from naturally gluten-free grains, such as buckwheat, or from pulses, like red split lentils. We’ve also got ready-made gluten-free food and ready-prepared gluten-free mixes.

The cheapest way to buy gluten-free food from us is in bulk – and this is where we really see off the supermarket competition. The supermarkets aren’t interested in storing bulk sacks of gluten-free oats and flour (or sacks of pulses, rice and other grains either), but these kinds of orders are some of our favourites! We can send out bulk sacks and packs of everything we stock, with significant discounts.

More information

You can see more precise figures on the cost of gluten-free food in this factsheet from Coeliac UK. For further tips on shopping for a gluten-free diet on a budget, see this factsheet here.

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This post was written by Yzanne

3 Comments

  • I am gluten intolerant amongst other “things” and I do make cakes. But they never rise in the same way as normal wheat flour does. As you have said there are many foods including fish that GF people can eat. However, my biggest arguement is that they all put far too much sugar in them, I presume as they taste differently to wheat based food and sugar disguises that. But considering the outcry over sugar in food it needs to be looked at. The other thing I have to say is why are there so many people today with eating disorders? I think it is because manufacturers have “meddled” with food to much.
    I know of quite a number of people who eat GF food not because they have to but it keeps their weight down.

    • Yzanne says:

      Hi Katie, thanks for getting in touch. Those are all very interesting points. Cake-making with gluten-free ingredients can be a real challenge. Have you checked out the books Babycakes by Erin McKenna and River Cottage gluten-free by Naomi Devlin? These have loads of expert recipes for gluten-free cakes – one of them might work for you.

      I entirely agree about the additional sugar in GF food (there’s also a problem with excess salt). Too many manufacturers know that if they put ‘gluten-free’ on a label, they can get away with all sorts of things! It’s one reason why we recommend making as much of your own ‘free from’ food as possible.

      And yes, there are a number of people who eat GF for general health/weight reasons, and, as you say, a number of people with a difficult relationship with food. At Naturally Good Food, we hope to be a small part of a more natural way of thinking about eating, which perhaps might help some of them.

      Best wishes,

      Yzanne Mackay
      Writer and Editor
      Naturally Good Food

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