What does a gluten-free diet cost?

Good news: gluten-free foods are less expensive compared to gluten-containing foods than they used to be! The bad news is they still cost almost twice as much, on average.

Overall, GF food products now cost 83 percent more than non-GF foods, according to a 2019 US market basket survey.[1] That’s much better than 2006, when a similar survey found they cost a whopping 140 percent more. GF foods from mass-market producers now cost 39 percent more than their non-GF equivalents.

To go gluten-free, you’ll have to completely cut out wheat, rye and barley – but these mainstream grains are the ones most commonly used in staple products such as bread, pasta and cereals. Quinoa, teff, millet, buckwheat and sorghum are naturally GF, but also less common and therefore more expensive than wheat, barley and rye.

The researchers compared a basket of gluten-containing staple foods, snack foods such as crackers, and convenience items (e.g. pizza and cakes) with a basket of their GF equivalents. The baskets were purchased from shopfront outlets in five US cities, and online.

The GF baskets varied considerably in cost across the different locations, ranging from 62 to 145 percent more than the non-GF basket. GF crackers, bread and pasta all cost more than twice as much as their gluten-containing equivalents.

Cheapest places to buy gluten-free foods

Since 2006, upmarket outlets have moved from being the least expensive source of GF products to become the most expensive. In contrast, traditional grocery stores have become the least expensive source rather than the second-most expensive they were in 2006.

Availability varied by location and outlet type, with stores in some cities stocking only one brand of GF pasta, for example. Regular grocery stores now stock a wider GF ranges than online outlets. Health food and upmarket stores generally stocked a wider range of GF products, although many health food stores have reduced their GF ranges since 2006. There is greater variety within product ranges, e.g. different flavoured crackers, but fewer brands.

Gluten-free food prices are going up

Disappointingly, the researchers found an ongoing increase in overall GF product prices and an ongoing drop in GF product availability. They noted that other studies had found similar patterns in several countries, including the UK, Austria and Chile.

Greater mass-market production of GF foods has helped, but cost and availability still impose a burden on people who must observe a GF diet.

Gluten-free food costs in Australia

A 2015 market basket survey[2] by Australian researchers found that the higher cost of GF foods led to a 17 percent increase in the total cost of a healthy GF diet for a family of four, i.e. the cost of all purchased foods, not just GF items. Staple GF food products such as flour, pasta and wholemeal bread were four or five times the cost of their non-GF equivalents.

Tips on how to reduce the cost of your gluten-free diet

Shopping
  • Aim to buy raw or unprocessed food items and cook them from scratch yourself.
  • Buy naturally GF grains such as quinoa, millets, teff, buckwheat and sorghum in bulk or when they’re are on sale. Buy as much as you think you can use by the best-before date.
  • Fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, nuts, rice and dairy are naturally gluten-free. Buy in season for cheaper prices. Use your freezer, and remember to write purchase and use-by dates on each package.
  • Buy naturally-GF legumes and pulses – such as chickpeas, lentils, peas, broad beans, kidney beans and black-eyed peas – in bulk if you can. You’ll find that dry products are cheaper, but tinned products are well-priced too. Most supermarkets regularly discount tinned chickpeas, etc.
  • If you know you’ll be short of time when you get home from work, make sure you stock up on GF pantry staples such as tinned chickpeas and tomatoes on your weekly shopping trip. Buy up in sales.
  • Check out the latest convenience foods such as packaged sliced vegies for soups and stir fries. Consider frozen vegies too – they’re a lot more nutritious than takeaways.
  • Always check the labels for nutrition information and allergy warnings.
Preparing food at home
  • Simple ingredients work well with exotic spices. Go Mexican with kidney beans, chili powder to taste, ground cumin and turmeric. Add a Middle Eastern touch with chickpeas, lentils and ground spices such as cumin, coriander and allspice.
  • Enjoy the taste and crunch of raw vegies and salads in your own Buddha or poke bowl. Try this delicious and healthy Buddha bowl to get started.
  • Replace pasta with rice, potatoes or chickpeas. You’ll be surprised how good your favourite dishes taste!
Bonus tips
  • For those times when you really want to eat out, keep GluteGuard on hand for extra protection against the symptoms of accidental gluten ingestion. With an active ingredient that helps break down any pesky gluten contamination, GluteGuard is a great adjunct to your GF diet.
  • Check out these great GF recipes for some fresh ideas.
  • To make sure your long-term diet is nutritionally sound – and help reduce your long-term health costs, visit a qualified dietitian for personalised advice.
  • Australian consumer advocacy group Choice offers some great gluten-free budget tips too.
By Nancy Mills from the Glutagen research team.

References

[1] Lee et al. (2019) ‘Persistent Economic Burden of the Gluten Free DietNutrients 2019 Feb 14
[2] Lambert, K. and Ficken, C. (2015) ‘Cost and affordability of a nutritionally balanced gluten‐free diet: Is following a gluten‐free diet affordable?Nutrition & Dietetics, 13 March 2015
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