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The cost of Being Gluten Free

Posted May 27 2009 10:50pm

The USDA Economic Research Service develops a hypothetical “market basket” of food to track trends and price fluctuations of food purchased in the U.S.   A market basket contains foods that represent a combination of items that would be purchased to meet the Dietary Guidelines.   P. H. Green, A.R. Lee, J. Ng and J Zivin published a study in the Journal of Human Nurition. Done in 2007, the article shows that gluten free foods were more expensive across the board than the gluten containing products.   The biggest differences in price were found in snacks and convenience foods.  The results did not surprise anyone who has been following the gluten free diet.

 The question is why these gluten free products are so much more expensive - sometimes double the cost of the usual item.  Part of the explanation lies in the cost of the raw ingredients.  Wheat flour costs about $0.34/lb while brown rice flour costs $1.89/lb.  A second contributor to the cost lies in production.  If dedicated machinery is used to make the gluten free product, the profit from the use of the equipment is limited to the profit from only these items.  If it is necessary to order products online, the cost of shipping increases the cost to the consumer.

There are several strategies to reduce the impact of the cost of these products on the family food budget.  The first is to refrain from purchasing gluten free snack foods. It is more econoical and healther it choose foods that are naturally gluten free.  Rice cakes and popcorn make good munchies.  Rice cakes  can be topped with peanut butter, jam or in the case of popcorn grated cheese.  Rice based snack foods are also available in Asian markets. Fresh fruit is another naturally gluten free, healthy  snack.  Another strategy is to use manufacturers coupons. Most manufacturers of gluten free products offer coupons on their websites.  Coupons may also be available through support groups.  Whole Foods markets offer a “money back guarantee” for products that are returned. Since there is a steep learning curve for bread, being able to return the product for store credit is a big advantage. 

Its is also wise to find as many gluten free products in local supermarkets rather than relying on expense specialty stores.  Never discard mistakes.   Unused gluten free bread can be used for bread crumbs.  Rejected cookies can be use to make a cracker pie crust. 

The Celiac Disease Foundation of South Florida has begun a Gluten Free Food Assistance Program.   Phyllis Kessler, a member of that group, raised money to provide financial support to those who are not able to afford the gluten free substitutes.   To receive help from the program, families show that their income meets Federal poverty guidelines.  Those families receiving food stamps would qualify.  Hopefully, this is an idea that will catch on elsewhere.

Until then, shop the perimeter of the supermarket where all the naturally gluten free foods are placed and avoid convenience foods as much as possible.

Lynn Cicero, M.S., R.D.

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