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Eating Gluten Free is healthy but expensive, find out the real cost (what it costs your hip pocket)!

Gluten Free MARKET GROWTH

To give an indication of the size of the gluten free market, in 2004, Americans consumed 133 pounds of wheat per person. From July 2004 to July 2005, consumers spent over $600 million on gluten-free foods, an annual growth of 14.6%. The market for GF foods and beverages in USA in 2007 exceeded $700 million, and is forecast to be $1.7 billion in 2010. Ref2

ECONOMIC COSTS

Time is money and gluten free is more money, a simple fact. And while only a few studies have been made, they do give us a good indication of what being a celiac can cost you at the cash register.

Consider this study in June 2007 “using data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) about typical household food consumption, researchers assembled “market baskets” of regular and gluten-free foods. The availability and the difference in price between the 11 regular and gluten-free items in the market basket were compared according the type of store and the region in which the items were purchased. Researchers surveyed local grocery stores, upscale grocery stores or regional chains, health food stores, and 4 online sites. Regions of the country were represented by New York City and Westchester County, Portland OR, Atlanta GA, Rapid City SD, and Chicago IL.” Ref 1

“The researchers found that health food stores and online sites had the largest selection of gluten-free foods, carrying 94% and 100% of the market basket items respectively, compared to availability of 41% in upscale markets and 36% in local grocery stores.” Ref 1

HOW MUCH MORE?

The price of the gluten-free foods was found to be 79% more than their equivalent foods. Bread and pasta was twice as expensive as their wheat-based counterparts. Cost was affected more by shopping venue than geographic location.

In this American study, GF cereals were found to be the exception in that they cost about the same. However in Australia, GF cereals tend to be much more expensive as they are often sold in smaller boxes (half the weight) for the same price as equivalent gluten cereals. It was found that internet shopping portals were the most expensive place to buy gluten-free foods, followed by health food stores and upscale markets. Again in Australia the reverse appears to be true as we generally find that online supermarkets are one of the most price competitive locations – excluding postage costs.

The researchers (ref 1) admitted that they performed the analysis over a relatively small sample number so it is wise to compare this with any other research. A study on GF Food cost at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia provides more evidence. Ref 2

The comparison was performed on prices for all food products labelled “gluten-free” and comparable gluten-containing food from two large-chain general grocery stores. The researchers compared the unit cost of each food, calculated as the price in dollars per 100 grams of each product. Not surprisingly, all 56 gluten-free products were more expensive than regular products. And in particular:

  • The average unit price for gluten-free products was $1.71
  • The average unit price of regular products was $0.61
  • The statistical probability of this result was very high (p<0.0001). Meaning that on average GF products were 242% more expensive than their counterparts!
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SPECIFIC COSTS

The following data is from a 2007 US Government study (ref 2). It shows that the cost of gluten-free products is considerably higher than their equivalent wheat filled products:

Wheat flour $0.34/lb TO Brown rice flour $1.89/lb

Wheat bread $1.09/loaf TO Gluten-free bread $6.00/loaf

Wheat pasta $0.87/lb TO Gluten free pasta $3.69/lb

Chocolate chip cookies $2.69/lb TO Gluten free chocolate chip cookies $12.83/lb

Wheat crackers $1.63/lb TO Rice crackers $9.12/lb

Study by the US Department of Labor, 2007, Bureau of Labor: Consumer Price Index

US Government rebate

One enterprising celiac in the US uncovered what he believed as economic subsidy for celiac disease. He noted that several IRS rulings (Revenue Ruling 55-261; Revenue Ruling 76-80, 67 TC 481; Cohen 38 TC 37; Van Kalb TC MEMO 1978 366; Flemming TC MEMO 1980 583), allow the cost difference between gluten containing food products and specialty gluten-free alternatives to be tax deductible for Celiac patients.

Unfortunately he also found that only the portion which exceeds a 7.5% threshold of adjusted gross income for all medical expenses combined would be deductible. This means that on an income of $50,000, one could only deduct any extra expense of GF foods (and any other legally deductible medical expense) that exceeded $3,750 (7.5% of $50,000)!

With the cost of celiac disease to the community, via extra health care when the disease is not diagnosed early enough, legislators in the US are considering the economic effects on the country. Although as the above examples shows, it is likely to be a long time before any meaningful shopping cart relief is provided.

CONCLUSIONS

The rationale for the extra expense of gluten free foods you pay for is compelling:

  • GF foods need to have production lines and factories cleaned of all gluten products before they can be manufactured. This single use environment usually means production costs for manufacturers are increased.
  • GF is a fledgling and captive market, only a small number of suppliers are producing foods that meet the strict GF standards. This means that they are able to set a higher price for their relatively exclusive wares.
  • Supply is often limited to specialty stores, which typically have higher margins.
  • Additional ingredients (such as xanthan gum, guargum, etc.) require extra preparation steps that add to the cost.

Until enough celiac are diagnosed (current levels in developed countries are often between 10-20%), to reach a critical mass in the manufacturing and retail segments, the prices will remain high.

References

Ref1 http://www.celiac.com/articles/21502/1/Low-Availability-and-Increased-Cost-of-Gluten-Free-Foods/Page1.html

Ref 2 www.healthsystem.virginia.edu/internet/digestive-health/nutritionarticles/CuretonArticle.pdf

Ref 3 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

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