How to spend less on gluten-free

One in five of us are eating a gluten-free diet, despite the expense. So how can we save money at the till on gluten-free foods?

Gluten-free on a budget

Whatever the reason you choose a gluten-free diet, the price you pay for products that meet your dietary requirements is almost certainly more than you'd pay for equivalent foods with gluten.

We look at why gluten-free costs more, and how you can spend less on gluten-free products. 

In this article:

Five ways to reduce the cost of gluten-free shopping

Dietitians Association of Australia spokesperson Natasha Murray has some excellent tips on ways to save cash at the checkout as a gluten-free shopper:

  1. Go fresh and unprocessed. Buy as many unprocessed foods as possible. All fresh fruits and vegetables, pure dairy and fresh meat are naturally gluten-free.
  2. Choose naturally gluten-free grains. Replace gluten-containing grains with naturally gluten-free grains, such as rice and quinoa.
  3. Avoid gluten-free junk foods. Just because a product is gluten-free doesn't necessarily mean it's a healthy option. Often, they can be high in sugars and fat and low in dietary fibre; junk food is still junk food.
  4. Look in other food aisles and read the labels carefully. If you really want a breakfast cereal, have a look in the breakfast aisle as well as the health food aisle. There are quite a few gluten-free products out there that might not have "gluten-free" on the label, but remember, there may be a risk of contamination if you choose foods that aren't certified as gluten-free.
  5. Make it yourself. Instead of paying a premium for the convenience of packaged gluten-free cereals, for example, make your own. Use rice flakes, some fruits and chia seeds to create a flavour you enjoy. Buy ingredients in bulk and save even more.

Want to mill your own gluten-free flours? See our food processor reviews and all-in-one kitchen machine reviews.

If you have Coeliac disease – a serious medical condition caused by sensitivity to gluten – another good way to potentially save money at the till is at Coles. 

The supermarket offers members of Coeliac Australia a five percent discount on selected gluten-free products in store and online.

What makes gluten-free so expensive?

A 2016 University of Wollongong study explored cost and affordability of a nutritionally balanced gluten-free diet. 

It discovered that gluten-free staples are significantly more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts – it costs up to 17% more for a gluten–free diet, and for some single gluten-free items, as much as five times more.

Taking a look at Sanitarium's Gluten Free Weet-Bix and you begin to understand where the extra costs might arise.

Launched into the market in 2014 and endorsed by Coeliac Australia, this product is made from the naturally gluten-free grain, sorghum.

little boy drinking with cereal bowl
Increased due diligence to manage allergen risk adds to the higher cost of Gluten Free Weet-Bix, says Sanitarium.

Australian food manufacturer Sanitarium worked hard to meet Food Standards Australia and New Zealand's (FSANZ) strict food code with Gluten Free Weet-Bix. 

"All ingredients are gluten-free and there's a rigorous allergen management process in place to guard against any risk of gluten contamination through the entire supply chain of both the individual ingredients and the manufactured product," says Sanitarium corporate technical manager Claire Heenan.

"Regular product testing also confirms the ongoing effectiveness of our allergen management systems."

Adding up the costs

"There are a number of factors that contribute to the higher cost of Gluten Free Weet-Bix," says Heenan when queried on the product's high unit price. 

"While sorghum is inherently gluten-free, we are required to source sorghum from suppliers who can ensure no contamination. This comes at a premium price due to specific management practices throughout growing, harvesting and grain handling."

Gluten Free Weet-Bix is manufactured at Sanitarium's dedicated gluten-free manufacturing site in Western Australia, letting the company adequately manage the allergen risk associated with manufacturing gluten-free grain products.

"Increased due diligence, in order to achieve certification, adds cost throughout each step of the supply chain, production and facility management," says Heenan.

Going gluten-free

According to the 2015 Neilsen Global Health and Wellness Report, it's young people – Generation Z (aged under 20) and Millennials (aged 21–34) – who are championing the gluten-free market and happy to pay a premium for the privilege. 

But that's not to say there are more young people with Coeliac disease than any other age group. 

Rather, it's that younger people see more value in investing in the perceived health benefits of eating gluten-free products.

Currently, 20% of Australians are actively avoiding gluten, earning Australia the title of largest gluten-free market in the Asia-Pacific region. 

To meet market demand, cafes and restaurants all over the country now offer customers gluten-free menu options. 

restaurant eating
A growing number of Australian restaurants and cafes are offering gluten-free options.

There's also been an exponential increase in the number of gluten-free products available on supermarket shelves.

For the one in 70 Australians with Coeliac disease, eating a gluten-free diet isn't merely a choice, it's essential to avoid serious intestinal damage and ongoing health concerns. 

For everyone else, avoiding gluten-containing foods is something we don't have to do but are choosing to do in droves. Why?

Why are people avoiding gluten? 

A 2015 CSIRO survey suggests one in seven non-Coeliac adults are self-initiating the elimination of wheat and dairy from their diets, motivated by the adverse reactions attributed to these foods.

"At the CSIRO, we've been investigating the drivers underpinning the popularity of gluten-free products for nearly a decade," says CSIRO researcher and behavioural scientist Dr Sinead Golley.

1 in 7 non-Coeliac adults are self-initiating the elimination of wheat and dairy from their diets

"Some people are avoiding wheat because a family member has been diagnosed with Coeliac disease …[others] for weight-control or taste preferences.

"[And] for significant numbers of the Australian public – approximately seven percent – it's a key strategy in symptom control, improving their gut health and overall wellbeing."

Making sense of symptoms

Golley says the broad spectrum of symptoms people experience makes it difficult for GPs and medical specialists to offer definitive diagnoses. 

This causes consumers to seek out advice and information elsewhere.

"There's a great deal of easily accessible information in the public domain that links the consumption of specific foods to adverse symptoms," she says.

"Those who decide to eliminate wheat for health reasons tend to do so based on advice from sources such as complementary practitioners like naturopaths, family, friends, the media..."

The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code requires gluten to be declared on labels whenever it's present as an ingredient or component of food additives or processing aids. 

The code also requires that if manufacturers and food producers claim food and products are 'gluten-free' on packaging or marketing, the food must have "no detectable gluten". 

In Australia and New Zealand, "no detectable gluten" or a detection limit of 0.5 parts per million (ppm) in foods labelled gluten-free contrasts significantly with most other international food codes, which require gluten-free foods to contain less than 20ppm of gluten. 

(For context, a daily diet of 500g food, 1ppm is equivalent to 0.5mg, the amount in 1/5000 of a slice of wheat-flour bread containing 2.5g gluten.)

Recent study casts doubt

A 2018 study, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, tested 256 of Australia's most commonly bought gluten-free products, including gluten-free pasta, cereals and breads. 

It found up to three percent of those products did not meet strict "no detectable gluten" national food standards. 

"While the gluten content per standard food serve was generally low, the 3mg gluten per serve [found in a sample] of 'gluten-free' pasta could be harmful [for Coeliacs], especially if consumed frequently," the researchers conclude. 

This correlates with the findings in a study conducted by Professor Geoffrey Forbes, gastroenterologist and clinical professor from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Western Australia, who tested for traceable gluten in imported products labelled gluten-free. 

He discovered that while the level of gluten detected was minute (<1.5ppm), these foods did not comply with Australian food standards of "no detectable gluten". 

Although there had been a desire by the food industry to relax the gluten-free code in Australia to 20ppm, Forbes suggests that Australia's rigorous limits on gluten in products claiming to be 'gluten-free' remain steadfast, but be changed slightly to ensure they can be realistically adhered to by food producers and manufacturers. 

A case for revising the standard

"We recommend that authorities revise the current Australian GF standard of no detectable gluten to 1ppm, as it's not practical or reasonable for industry to comply with the stricter standard," he states in his study. 

"The trouble is you can't measure zero. It used to be, going back 25 years, that the cut point was 30ppm so anything less than that was 'no detectable gluten'. 

"As time's gone by, the ability of laboratories to actually measure smaller and smaller amounts of gluten has improved and now the cut point is down at 1, 2, 3, 4, 5ppm." 

Some food labels use 'may contain' or 'may be present' statements about certain allergens, such as 'may contain wheat'. 

These suggest the product may have been contaminated during the production process or during transportation and are voluntary rather than mandatory. 

The real risk of contamination will vary between manufacturers, making the statements tricky for consumers to decipher.