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Commentary: The high cost of living a gluten-free lifestyle

More affordable, better-tasting non-gluten products are what many Canadians deserve.
The cost of gluten-free food products remains a significant challenge for individuals with celiac disease and gluten-intolerant consumers.

Most Canadians don’t know that May is Celiac Awareness Month. Almost 400,000 Canadians have been clinically diagnosed with celiac disease.

That’s about the size of a city like London, Ontario. For those with celiac disease, eating gluten-free food is far from a lifestyle choice. They must eat gluten-free food, full stop. Cross-contaminated food is also off-limits, which is why Health Canada has made it mandatory to label products that contain gluten.

This represents a huge win for those Canadians affected. Anything containing gluten, which contains wheat, rye, or barley, is labelled. But gluten-free products are incredibly expensive.

The cost of gluten-free food products remains a significant challenge for individuals with celiac disease and gluten-intolerant consumers. In fact, research suggests that gluten-free products can be up to 150 to 500 per cent more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts. For example, gluten-free bread is 240 per cent more expensive, according to Celiac Canada, and gluten-free pasta is 160 per cent more expensive.

This difference in price can result in a significant financial burden for an individual. The extra cost of choosing gluten-free compared to regular foods can easily exceed $1,000 per year. This can be challenging for those with limited financial resources, especially with already higher food prices these days.

A recent survey from Celiac Canada suggests that some people with celiac disease had to begin accessing food banks after their diagnosis due to the cost of gluten-free food. In fact, many had to go to a food bank at least once a month. For someone with the disease, not having access to affordable gluten-free products is like not having access to affordable medicine they need to survive.

In the same survey, a significant proportion of respondents expressed that the cost of gluten-free food has increased compared to that of pre-pandemic levels, leading to financial challenges for many. This underscores the significant burden that the cost of gluten-free food places on individuals and families living with celiac disease in Canada.

It is also important to note that celiac disease is highly underdiagnosed. In fact, up to 85 per cent of individuals with celiac disease are estimated to remain undiagnosed. This is a disturbing trend, given the potential long-term health consequences of untreated celiac disease, which can include poor absorption of nutrients, osteoporosis, and an increased risk of certain types of cancer. Having celiac disease can be costly in more ways than one.

Some groups are advocating for the “grocery rebate” to be enhanced for people with the disease. At first glance, it seems like a measure that could help. But it may not be an ideal solution to subsidize those who need to buy these products. Such an approach could potentially make these products even more expensive.

Instead, giving incentives to companies to focus on gluten-free products would increase competition and put pressure on companies to reduce their prices. That’s exactly what’s happening with the plant-based section at the grocery store, for both dairy and meat alternatives. More options and supply will eventually bring prices down.

The taste of some of these products also leaves a lot to be desired. Some improvements have been noticeable in recent years, but it is still a work in progress. We have seen some improvement over the last decade, but more needs to be done.

Economically, however, it’s hard to get food companies excited about a limited market of about 400,000 people. More awareness of the disease is critical in order to decrease the number of undiagnosed sufferers.

In recent years, we have seen some celebrities like Kourtney Kardashian and Jessica Alba claiming that they are either allergic or intolerant to gluten. Many of these stars have made gluten-free products a part of a new lifestyle. Some celebrities have the disease, but most don’t.

If more celebrities speak out, it can create more awareness of the need for gluten-free products, as long as we can clearly distinguish between a dietary choice and having the actual disease. Recognizing both markets can only build a better case for food companies to consider the gluten-free market.

More affordable, better-tasting non-gluten products are what many Canadians deserve. While some need these products, others just want them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Recognizing needs and wants can certainly lead to more food innovation.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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