Is Gluten-Free Food Really Twice the Price?
Prices are going up everywhere, and our gluten-free foods are no exception. It seems like the prices of our go-to gluten-free items go up every week.
The gluten-free food premium
For years, celiacs have had to pay more at the store for basics. A paper published in 2019 using prices from 2016 concluded that, on average, celiacs buying gluten-free foods were paying 183% the cost of their regular equivalents. For some foods, like gluten-free bread and pasta, we might pay more than twice the price.1 It’s bad enough for those of us with good jobs and sufficient funds to cover the cost of living. Food shopping must be truly terrifying for our celiac neighbors struggling to make ends meet.
I recently spoke with Wendy Pake of FOODiversity about these challenges. FOODiversity helps food banks provide safe, nutritious food to people with food allergies, intolerances, and celiac disease. Food insecurity doesn’t just affect people on regular diets; people with dietary restrictions can find themselves deciding between safe food and no food at all.
“Chronic medical conditions and the need for special foods can push families deeper into food insecurity.“
Wendy Pake, CEO FOODiversity
What’s the price difference today?
Talking with Wendy got me thinking about the extra cost I might be paying for safe food. Although I don’t buy many pre-made gluten-free items, I see them in stores, and I do splurge sometimes. As a frequent baker, the cost of flours matters to me too. I decided to do my own cost comparison research.
Where I live in Switzerland, we have very few online outlets – Amazon doesn’t regularly deliver here, so you have to order something delivered to France or Germany, have a place for it to be delivered, then cross the border to pick it up. That’s not necessarily a big deal – the French border is 10 minutes from where I live, the German border about 20 minutes – but it does add complications and extra costs. So I don’t shop online for food, and I didn’t consider it in my analysis.
I compared costs at each of the two major supermarket chains, a large health food store chain, and my local Asian market. We have Aldi and Lidl, but they don’t consistently carry gluten-free foods, so they were also not part of my survey.
To keep it simple, I grouped foods into a few clusters: Bread and crackers; cereals; cookies, cakes and muffins; fish sticks; flour; ice cream cones (ice cream in a cone); noodles and pasta; Pizza and pizza crusts; pretzels; seasoning and sauces (mostly soy sauce); and tortillas and Mexican food kits (surprisingly popular here!).
I have the same challenges here that American celiacs face, with smaller packages - 5 pieces of bread is not a loaf, people! I converted all of the prices to a 100-gram basis to account for different package sizes. As of this writing, in July 2023, the Swiss Franc and the US Dollar are about equal, too, so I have converted prices to approximate dollar costs.
Big Picture, Big Difference
Looking across all product types and all stores, the overall premium for gluten-free foods was 58% - I pay 58% more for the gluten-free version of something than the regular version. That’s better than the 2016 data from the US – perhaps because I included fewer premade or convenience foods – but still quite a lot, especially in a country that is expensive to begin with.
Three big losers
As a celiac, I still pay the biggest premium for safe gluten-free flour. Our specialty flour mixes drove the difference, with their combinations of many different unusual ingredients, are far more expensive than regular wheat flour. Even the least expensive gluten-free flour mix was almost 7 times as expensive as budget wheat flour. Buying rice flour and sweet rice flour, as I do, is far more reasonable. I was pleased to see that my rice flour from the local Asian market was by far the least expensive rice flour alternative, costing 31% less than rice flour from the supermarket.
Another basic item for many celiacs with a huge price difference is gluten-free bread and crackers. Comparing gluten-free white bread, dark bread, and crackers to their gluten-containing equivalents, we pay an average of 2.3 times the price. I know that our flours are more expensive, and that our breads don’t have the same shelf life as regular bread, but 2.3 times as much? That’s a lot to swallow, especially when our breads are often dry, crumbly, or filled with holes. It made me glad that I stopped eating bread years ago.
What about pasta? The entry of big-name brands was supposed to bring down gluten-free food prices. Reality is…not so good. Barilla® gluten-free spaghetti costs me almost 80% more than Barilla regular spaghetti – roughly 88 cents for 100 grams for the gluten-free version, vs. 50 cents per 100 grams for the regular, gluten-containing pasta.
The store matters
Most of the time, big supermarket prices in America aren’t that different from one another. When I shopped for food in Las Vegas, the prices at Albertson, Smith and Von were all reasonably close. Trader Joe’s, Sprouts and Whole Foods had similar prices to one another too. Here in Switzerland the same rule applies; prices in our two major chains, Migros and Coop, don’t vary that much on staples.
However, when you’re shopping gluten-free, it pays to check!
Not surprisingly, our major health food store chain, Al Natura, was far more expensive for some items. Penne was more than twice as expensive at the health food store. However, the Barilla penne at Coop was 75% more expensive than the house brand penne at Migros, which is just about as good. The gluten-free rye bread substitute was 7% more expensive in Coop than in Migros, too.
You have to keep your eyes open, though. No individual chain was uniformly less expensive. While I found many gluten-free foods that cost less in Migros, ice cream in a gluten-free cone costs about one-third less in Coop.
I have bought my rice flour at the Asian market for years (and in many countries) and always found it to be less expensive and better to bake with. But Migros recently introduced a plain white rice flour, so I included it in the analysis. It costs 44% more than the Asian market’s flour. And it has that grainy texture that makes baked goods dry and crumbly. Nice try Migros, but no thanks!
Become a power shopper
Saving money on gluten free food is possible. Become a savvy gluten-free food shopper. Know your prices, use brand or product substitutions, and cook from scratch whenever you can. Managing your food budget is one more complication of living with celiac disease, but you can do it!
If you would like more details on my comparisons, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to answer your questions.
1. Lee, A. R., Wolf, R. L., Lebwohl, B., Ciaccio, E. J., & Green, P. H. (2019). Persistent economic burden of the gluten free diet. Nutrients, 11(2), 399.