The cost of special diets is hard to digest

Gluten-free foods cost far more than standard foods, and many people are buying them without first seeking medical advice, even though self-diagnosis can be dangerous and pricey

Avoiding certain foods can be expensive. Allergies, food intolerance and coeliac disease – a severe reaction to gluten – can add hundreds, if not thousands, to the annual shopping bill.

Those who cannot eat wheat are paying the biggest price: gluten-free breads, pastas, biscuits, cakes and crisps can be more than three times more expensive than the regular products. SuperValu has analysed the reward-card data of their shoppers and found the average cost of a basket of goods for a person with coeliac disease is up to 87 per cent more expensive.

The food is more expensive because of the extra costs of production. And clearly, consumers are willing to pay more. It is a growing market: in the past few months, Aldi and SuperValu have launched new ranges. Aldi's gluten-free range costs a lot more than its regular produce. SuperValu's new gluten-free Clonakilty range – so far available in only a few Cork stores – is also expensive but relatively affordable.

But are some consumers who believe they are gluten-intolerant just wasting their money?

The war against gluten was reignited by a recent bestseller, Grain Brain by Dr David Perlmutter, which linked gluten to Alzheimer's, anxiety, depression and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Critics of Perlmutter – including Dr Julie Miller of St Catherine University in Minnesota; and Dr David Katz, founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Centre and an expert in integrative and preventative medicine – say he has not proven the case against gluten and that his dietary advice is selective and misleading.

The problems of gluten, some say, have been overstated. Last year, a scientific study at Monash University in Australia found just 8 per cent of people who self-reported actually had issues with gluten.

Self-diagnosis is just one problem; people not seeking medical advice is another. Sarah Keogh is a consultant dietitian with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute. She says many who believe they are intolerant may be suffering from coeliac disease, an auto-immune response that affects up to one in 100 of the population, which, if left untreated, can damage the intestine.

“Whereas individuals with gluten intolerance may be able to handle small amounts, a coeliac cannot have any, ever. The only place to get reliably tested is at your GP’s office.”

Skipping the doctor visit means other disorders may be missed. Some self-diagnose as gluten-intolerant when they are suffering from irritable bowel syndrome.

“There’s huge confusion around this,” says Keogh. “Some people have problems absorbing a particular short-chain fermentable carbohydrate known as a Fodmap, which can cause bloating, altered bowel habits and tiredness. One of these, fructan, is found in wheat, but different types of Fodmaps occur in many other foods, and people need to be tested for coeliac disease or a Fodmap intolerance.”

Not tasty

Gluten-free products are not naturally tasty and often have higher levels of processed fats, sugars, salts and preservatives, while being low in essential dietary fibre. Coeliacs and gluten-avoiders are very familiar with a loaf of bread that stays “fresh” for weeks.

“Gluten is just a protein that can be digested by the majority of people. It is harmful if you’re a coeliac, while the jury is out on whether or not non-coeliac gluten-sensitivity actually exists,” says Keogh. “People need to find clinically trained and experienced dietitians to get a proper diagnosis and ensure they are eating the right diet.”

Gluten is fine for the majority of people, says Emma Clarke Conway of the Irish Coeliac Society, but many products that have gluten in them also tend to be more processed. Cutting out processed and sugary foods may make people feel healthier, but it could be simplistic to blame gluten alone. Gluten is in more products than many people are aware of. Soups and seafood chowders need to be checked, as indeed does every label. Ireland already had a good record, but EU legislation introduced last year means that all allergens must be identified on the labels of food.

Cost-saving tips

Checking every label is a lot of work, though, and the cost of gluten-free alternatives is prohibitive. Clarke Conway offers some good cost-saving tips for people who, for whatever reason, are avoiding wheat.

“Bake your own bread at home. You can make it in batches and freeze it, and this will cost less than a gluten-free loaf. Try different brands and different shops; there’s no point in buying a cheaper gluten-free bread from a particular shop if you can’t bear the taste. Taste is a bigger problem for coeliacs who are diagnosed later in life. Learn not to be completely reliant on bread as a source of carbohydrates.”

Some coeliacs and gluten-avoiders are choosing to cut out the substitutes altogether. The Coeliac Society suggests that people look also at rice, rice cakes, potatoes, corn and corn breads, quinoa, gluten- free oats and buckwheat, and check out recipes for lunches and dinners that can be made in advance. Also, shop online, where there are good bargains to be had.

If you are cutting back on gluten, save your receipts; gluten-free products are tax-deductible and the tax can be claimed back. SuperValu can provide its reward-card customers with an annual certificate of expenditure on gluten-free items. indi.ie, coeliac.ie

NO GLUTEN? THAT’LL COST EXTRA

ALDI

The “Has No . . . ” range is one of the better supermarket selections. Even in this discount retailer, the cost of gluten-free products is eye-popping:

Pasta

  • Fusilli pasta: €0.49 for 500g €0.98 per kg
  • Gluten-free fusilli: €1.49 for 500g €2.98 per kg

Cornflakes

  • Harvest Morn Cornflakes: €1.09 for 500g €2.18 per kg
  • Gluten-free: €1.99 for 350g €5.69 per kg

Bread

  • Ballymore Crust pan: €1.19 for 800g €1.49 per kg
  • Gluten- and wheat-free: €1.99 for 400g €4.98 per kg

SUPERVALU

SuperValu has more than 300 items for people with allergies, food intolerance or coeliac disease.

Soda bread

  • McCambridge's, €1.49 for 500g €2.98 per kg
  • Clonakilty gluten-free brown soda bread, €2 for 450g €4.44 per kg

Spaghetti

  • Roma spaghetti, €2.50 for 500g €2.50 per kg
  • Roma gluten-free, €2.99 for 500g €5.98 per kg

Tea cakes

  • Jacob's Elite (pack of six), €3.17 for 150g €21.13 per kg
  • Kelkin gluten-free (six), €4.10 for 165g €24.85 per kg