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If you have tried going gluten-free or cooking for someone who needs to eat food without gluten, you probably know that this diet can be seriously unhealthy for your budget.
After she went gluten-free, Arlington, Virginia, lawyer Jennifer Dillon told Reuters that her grocery bill rose by $40 a week for her family of four, to at least $130 a week. Time magazine called gluten-free eating “an exceptionally pricey food fad.”
However, as I learned after switching to a gluten-free diet 12 years ago, spending wads of money just isn’t necessary.
Few people actually need to go gluten-free for health. But for those who must, it’s a lifesaver. The University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center estimates 3 million Americans, or 3.5 percent of the population, have celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disorder causing digestive system damage from eating wheat, rye or barley.
Another small percentage of the population is thought to have less damaging conditions like gluten intolerance and wheat allergy. But does gluten harm everyone? Opinions vary. The Huffington Post debunks “myths” about a gluten-free diet, while others liken gluten to cigarettes.
The idea has caught on more broadly, and the food industry is responding, but gluten-free products can be breathtakingly expensive. One study found that gluten-free products, on average, cost 242 percent more than their wheat-based counterparts. Other research finds they cost up to 518 percent more, Reuters says.
The demand for everything gluten-free has analysts at Packaged Facts predicting the industry will be worth $6.6 billion in 2017. Much of the higher price goes to cover the costs of certification, testing and maintaining separate processing plants, explains one producer.
Once you go gluten-free, there are ways to keep costs down. I’ve gleaned these tips from my experience and that of others, including gluten-free author-bloggers Annalise Roberts (The Food Philosopher) and Nicole Hunn (Gluten-Free on a Shoestring):
1. Accept it: Your world has changed
Gluten-free eating becomes easy when you accept that there’s really no substitute for wheat. Just let it go. Store-bought gluten-free baked goods aren’t just hellaciously expensive, they’re also:
- Disappointing. It’s crushing to spend $15 on a pie “that tastes like gravel,” says Roberts, author of several acclaimed gluten-free baking books. When I first encountered a gluten-free bakery, I was like a traveler in the desert stumbling upon an oasis. I bought a scone, a muffin, cookies and a Danish. With each bite, my disappointment grew. Today, I mostly avoid baked goods that aren’t homemade. A few local artisan bakeries are setting the bar higher these days, but “not bad” is still high praise for most store-bought gluten-free products.
- Fattening. Fat, sugar, eggs and salt are used to pump up the blandness of rice flour, a primary ingredient in baked goods.
- Quickly stale. These baked goods dry out much more quickly than wheat-based foods.
2. Embrace new habits
Stop trying to replace all the bread, bagels, muffins and cookies you used to eat. Make bread and cookies occasional treats. Eat burgers and sausages without a bun. Switch to open-faced sandwiches, lettuce wraps and crackers. Enjoy dips, hummus and peanut butter with vegetables and fruits. Cornbread (read the labels on mixes) is a quick, easy bread substitute.
3. Cut back on restaurants and takeout
Eating at home saves tons of money and reduces your chances of accidental gluten poisoning. I once got ill from a chicken dish the waitress had assured me contained no wheat. I later found out that she’d known the dish had flour, but she hadn’t realized that flour (typically) is wheat.