A new report shows that families could be paying up to 17 per cent more for a gluten-free diet, and as much as 500 per cent more for some gluten-free items.

The new study, conducted by University of Wollongong researchers Kelly Lambert and Caitlin Ficken and published in the Dietitians Association of Australia’s journal, Nutrition & Dietetics, compared the coast of a basket of gluten-free health foods to the cost of a traditional healthy food basket, among four different family types.

“A gluten-free diet is unaffordable for the majority of family types we studied and for most families receiving welfare payments in Australia,” says Ms Lambert, an Accredited Practicing Dietitian.

Ms Lambert says the purchase price of a basket of gluten-free staple foods is up to 17 per cent higher than a basket of equivalent gluten-containing foods, with particularly hefty mark-ups on some staple items.

“In all cases, gluten-free flour, muesli, wraps and bread were more expensive,” she says.

“For example, gluten-free items were between 316 per cent (for wraps) and 574 per cent (for flour) more expensive per 100 grams.”

While it’s undeniable that some people who purchase gluten-free food don’t actually need to do so, Ms Lambert says that coeliac disease — a gastrointestinal condition managed solely through a lifelong gluten-free diet — affects one in 100 Australians.

For sufferers of this disease, carefully following a gluten-free diet is crucial in preventing complications such as bowel cancer, osteoporosis and infertility.

“For Australian families with a member affected by coeliac disease, the expense of a gluten-free diet is an unavoidable reality,” Ms Lambert says.

“Sadly, the higher cost of the specialised foods they need to manage their condition often impacts on how well they can stick to the diet. Families on welfare with people who need a gluten-free diet are particularly vulnerable.”

So, how do we fix this? Ms Lambert is calling on the Government to consider a national subsidised medical foods program in Australia, to ensure people with coeliac disease can access affordable gluten-free staples via prescription. A similar model is currently used in England.

Ms Lambert believes her research will also give people who don’t suffer from coeliac disease, but have jumped on the gluten-free diet trend, something to think about.

“Over the past decade or so, avoiding gluten-containing foods has become a popular diet choice,” she says.

“Some people buy gluten-free foods because they think it will help them lose weight or because they think gluten-free foods are healthier, and others believe they are sensitive to gluten.

“If you suspect your body can’t handle gluten, see your doctor first for a proper diagnosis. Without this, if you continue on a gluten-free diet, you not only risk missing out on important nutrients, but you’ll be up for a much steeper bill at the checkout, which for some people will mean less money for healthy foods like fruit and vegetables.”

Tips from the Dietitians Association of Australia to cut costs on a gluten-free diet

  • Cover your nutritional bases by prioritising in-season vegetables and legumes, which are gluten-free and economical. Most Australians need to boost their vegetable intake (with the latest National Health Survey showing only seven per cent of Australian adults meet the recommended daily serve of vegetables). A good guide is to aim for two to three cups or more of vegetables or salad each day.
  • Cook more at home as a way to trim your budget, keep tabs on what’s in your food, and improve the quality of your diet — with research showing people who regularly make their meals at home have better overall diets.
  • Avoid gluten-free ‘discretionary’ foods, such as biscuits and cakes. Like their gluten-containing counterparts, these are pricey — and should be viewed as an occasional treat.