(In eighth paragraph, removes incorrect ratio reference to
those with celiac disease.)
By Kathleen Kingsbury
BOSTON, Feb. 25 When Alice Bast was diagnosed
with celiac disease in 1994, she had to scour local health-food
stores and send away to Canada for the gluten-free food her
Two decades later, Jennifer Dillon received the same
diagnosis but found gluten-free choices much closer to home - in
the way of takeout from the Chinese restaurant down the street,
options at the local supermarket, and on the shelves of a nearby
"I even bought gluten-free Girl Scout cookies last month,"
says Dillon, an attorney who lives in Arlington, Virginia.
Despite the difference in when the two women went
gluten-free, they have something in common: The lofty price of
their gluten-free diets is hard to swallow, coming at a
significant premium to the price of conventional food items.
Dillon estimates that where she used to spend $90 per week
on groceries for her family of four, her weekly bill now is at
Overall, Americans will spend an estimated $7 billion this
year on foods labeled gluten-free, according to consumer
research firm Mintel.
It can be twice as expensive to eat gluten-free, says Bast,
who is president of the National Foundation for Celiac
Awareness. "Our surveys tell us this is the number-one stressor
for celiac patients, especially the newly diagnosed."
The University of Chicago's Celiac Disease Center estimates
that about 3 million Americans have celiac disease, an
autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation in the small
intestine and leads to malnutrition.
Going sans gluten means more than giving up wheat-based
bread, cereal, pasta, and beer. It's also found in less obvious
products, such as soy sauce, salad dressing, even toothpaste.
Many people without celiac disease are excluding gluten as
well from their diets, to combat food allergies, to ease
gastrointestinal issues or arthritis, even to lose weight.
Indeed, avoiding gluten has quickly become the latest food
fad in a long list, ranging from the low-fat diets of the 1980s
to the Atkins and other diets in which the consumption of
carbohydrates is avoided or limited.
According to consumer research firm Nielsen, the proportion
of households reporting that they buy gluten-free products has
jumped to 11 percent, from 5 percent in 2010. Celebrities such
as Miley Cyrus and Elisabeth Hasselbeck have touted its
Health-conscious consumers are sold. A March 2013 survey by
market research firm the NPD Group found that 29 percent of
Americans were cutting back or avoiding gluten all together.
That number appears likely to rise.
"This is the health issue of the day," says Harry Balzer,
chief industry analyst at NPD.
Brands as diverse as Anheuser-Busch and General
Mills, betting that the hunger for gluten-free products
will only grow, are promoting "gluten-free" versions of some of
their best-selling products.
Indeed, burgeoning demand will help the gluten-free market
to grow by some $4 billion by 2017, at no small cost to the
One 2008 study done at Canada's Dalhousie Medical School
compared prices of 56 ordinary grocery items containing gluten
with their gluten-free alternatives. All of the gluten-free
products were more expensive, on average costing a jaw-dropping
242 percent more.
British researchers who conducted a similar study in 2011
found that the premium for gluten-free groceries ranged between
76 and 518 percent more than their wheat-based counterparts.
Part of the outsized prices come from the higher cost that
manufacturers incur to make and market gluten-free products. In
August, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued new, strict
guidelines for certifying and labeling a food as "gluten-free."
While going gluten-free is the only treatment option for
celiac patients, for others, gluten-avoidance may well be a
waste of money.
In a 2012 essay in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Italian
celiac researchers Antonio Di Sabatini and Gino Roberto Corazza
note that there is no good test to diagnose nonceliac gluten
sensitivity and, despite the hype, there is not enough
scientific evidence of the health benefits that have been
associated with going gluten-free.
Without further research, the authors warn against a "gluten
preoccupation from evolving into the conviction that gluten is
toxic for most of the population."
For those determined to eat gluten-free, fewer choices and
availability continue to drive up the cost.
That's despite the fact that plenty of widely available,
more reasonably priced food - such as fruit, vegetables, dairy
and non-processed meat - is naturally gluten-free.
Still, more discount chains and big-box stores, including
Wal-Mart, now carry gluten-free products. This benefits
the consumer as it's somewhat brought down costs, and
contributed to an improvement in the taste and texture of
gluten-free foods, according to Bast.
"It used to be that a piece of gluten-free bread tasted like
the cardboard box it came in and a pound of pasta cost $9.99,"
she says. "Today, finding less expensive (gluten-free) options
is just a matter of shopping around and being more creative in
(Editing by Lauren Young and Bernadette Baum)