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Speciality diet is hard on the bank account

Labeling-Photos-02Living gluten-free is the new vegetarian, but it is not just a so-called'"tummy-trimming diet."

For some people, it's a mandatory and expensive lifestyle change that they aren't able to afford.

According to a 2011 study conducted at King's College London, gluten-free foods are at least 76 per cent and as much as 518 per cent more expensive than their non-gluten-free counterparts.

For those that just want to take a few pounds off, it's just a temporary strain on the bank. For those who have to continually live gluten-free, the prices can be a real piggy-bank smasher.

Those with gluten intolerance suffer from a number of symptoms like:

  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Gastro-intestinal problems 
  • Aching joints 

According to GlutenFreeNetwork.com, around 15 per cent of the population will have a gluten sensitivity. 

As someone with gluten intolerance, I've personally noticed a huge difference in my grocery bill.

To demonstrate that difference, I compared the price of Safeway brand basic foods to the gluten-free alternatives that are also found at Safeway.

I found the store brand whole wheat bread is $2.99 while Kinnikinnick multigrain bread is priced at $5.99. Meanwhile, Safeway brand original crackers are $1.87 while Glutino original gluten-free crackers are $4.99.

But, according to Nicole Boisvert — a representative of Calgary's Community Natural Foods — there are a lot of reasons for the price difference.

"One of the reasons why gluten-free costs more is because of the fact that there is a lot of specialty ingredients that go into making the product," said Boisvert, who is also a Celiac — someone who is allergic to gluten — and a holistic nutritionist.
She also explains a lot of Calgary's Community Natural Foods' gluten-free items are baked goods — something that isn't usually gluten free. Labeling-Photos-019Healthy choices stand that features gluten-free alternatives at Safeway. Celiacs who must eat gluten-free food are forced to pay a premium for these foods.

Photo by Kaity Brown 

"They have a lot of specialty flours and ingredients and those ingredients tend to cost a bit more than wheat flours or baking soda."

The prices of gluten-free foods are also higher because the companies need separate equipment and specially trained employees to help ensure the products aren't contaminated with gluten.

In addition, Boisvert explained smaller facilities often produce gluten-free foods, resulting in higher prices than products that are mass-produced.

Prices may change 

But Peter Taylor, executive director of the Canadian Celiac Association and Celiac himself, anticipates that prices in the gluten-free world are going to change.

"The gluten-free manufacturing marketplace, as I've been told, is over $1.26 billion dollars. It's also growing faster than most markets. More companies are coming online and seeing this as a very important target."

Once companies come out with more gluten-free options, there will be more competition and lower prices in the market that has grown at a rate of 18 per cent in 2011 as compared to years before.

But, until then, Celiacs living below the poverty line — and the food banks providing for them — will continue to struggle.

"The challenge in food banks in the country is... very saddening," Taylor said. "How do they get food that is not regular, but food that is more expensive and safer?"

Taylor explains that not only is there a huge price difference between gluten-free and non-gluten-free foods but — on top of that — these specialized products don't last as long unless they are kept frozen.

More demand at food bank

Kathryn Sim, a representative of Calgary Inter-Faith Food Bank Society, says the service has seen more demand for gluten-free food. 

"It's pretty scary for our clients to come in a say 'I can't eat the food you've given me'."

As a result, the bank has been creating food packages that include gluten-free alternatives. But the problem has been that people aren't willing to donate such expensive foods when they can donate a cheaper option.

"What we are finding is rather than food donations, we are getting cash donations at that store," says Sim, when referring to a health food store that had a gluten-free food drive for the bank.

Another issue that arose was that food bank volunteers weren't trained to be able to identify naturally gluten-free alternatives.

Sim explained that a volunteer, Celiac herself, offered to help the food bank identify and sort gluten-free from the wheat-full counterparts, which was a help better than any donation.

But life is continuing to get better for those who rely on gluten-free food.

Community Natural Foods representative Boisvert pointed out Celiacs can now claim the cost difference between gluten and non-gluten food on their taxes.

"If the government is doing something like that you got to know that it is becoming quite the industry."

kbrown@cjournal.ca