For some it’s a lifestyle choice, for others it’s essential for their health. And for others still the lines are blurred: it's a choice they've come to 'believe' is essential for their health and well-being.
Whatever the reason, a gluten-free life is not cheap.
In fact, this year there have been multiple press reports of products that are routinely gluten free anyway, including bottles of tomato ketchup, rice cakes and soups, being marked as ‘gluten free’ and sold for as much as 50% more.
Cost makes a big difference for the UK’s community of coeliac disease sufferers; a condition that affects 1-in-100 people across the country. Coeliacs don't react well to gluten, a type of protein found in cereal grains, especially wheat.
Buy it’s not simply an allergy, it's a lifelong auto-immune disease that can cause bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, constipation, tiredness, sudden or unexpected weight loss, hair loss and anaemia.
So how much does a gluten-free lifestyle cost and is there enough help available?
How much extra?
The support group Coeliac UK compared the prices of everyday ‘free from’ foods and found the difference with the standard offerings was enormous. For example, 100g of supermarket white sliced bread cost 7p, and 5p for the economy brand. Meanwhile, the gluten-free alternative cost 36p per 100g – more than four times more.
"I’s a condition that essentially means you’ll pay at least half as much again for a huge amount of everyday stuff," says Niamh, a coeliac disease sufferer living in Newcastle and the single parent of a son also diagnosed with the condition.
The trouble is, for disease suffers there is no alternative. And for non-coeliacs who believe a gluten-free diet is essential to their health, there's no financial support either.
“It’s not a lifestyle choice for us,” says Niamh. “And you’d be amazed at some of the unlikely food that includes gluten, it’s really hard to avoid."
Some restaurants offer gluten-free alternatives, but Niamh says they cost more, too.
Food on prescription
People who have been formally diagnosed with coeliac disease will often qualify for ‘food on prescription’, although they will typically still have to pay a prescription charge.
Last summer, there was a public outcry when the Daily Mail claimed that gluten-free food on prescription cost Britain's National Health Service £116 million a year, but Coeliac UK claimed the true figure was £26.8 million, which is around £180 per patient.
Even though the cost may be exaggerated, there are signs that austerity has started to bite into the budget available.
According to Coeliac UK, more than a quarter of Clinical Commissioning Groups in England have started to restrict or even withdraw access to gluten-free staple foods for patients with coeliac disease.
“For someone medically diagnosed with coeliac disease there is no choice, so access to gluten-free staples is critical, and not as easy as you might think,” explains Sarah Sleet, the organisation’s chief executive.
The expansion of 'free from' aisles in large supermarkets masks the reality of very patchy availability, while small stores and budget supermarkets stock a dearth of gluten-free staples. "What’s more, prices make such products unaffordable for some," Ms. Sleet says. "Both these issues put those most in need at risk – those on a limited budget or with limited mobility.”
“We need our prescriptions,” says Niamh. “With the cost [of gluten-free food], the breadline is a lot closer for us than for other people.”
Should more be done to support coeliac disease sufferers? What about those who choose to adopt a gluten-free lifestyle? Have your say using the comments below.