Food Insecurity in the Gluten-Free Community
When you need to eliminate gluten from your diet, you may encounter some challenges when changing what you eat, learning to be vigilant to avoid cross-contact, and navigating shopping for and cooking gluten-free foods. For people who are food insecure, inability to access gluten-free food adds to a major challenge that can be difficult to overcome without assistance and support. Food insecurity is defined as “being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.”
Food insecurity is recognized as a major public health challenge. When dietary restrictions are involved, the lack of access to safe food can further challenge a person’s ability to adopt, and stick to, a gluten-free diet. In fact, a review of data of celiac disease patients who participated in the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that households with dietary restrictions were more likely to experience worsening food insecurity than households without restrictions. (1)
One survey study (2) concluded that patients with lower incomes have worse celiac-disease-related health and greater symptoms. Those with low income had six times the odds of experiencing greater symptoms compared with those with high income. The data suggests that income is associated with perceived overall health, celiac-disease-related health, and celiac disease symptoms.
The High Cost of Gluten-Free Food
In an examination of the cost and availability of gluten-free products in the U.S. compared to the marketplace over a decade ago (3), the overall cost of gluten-free products was found to be 183% more expensive than their wheat-based counterparts. Crackers, a common snack food, demonstrated the largest difference between gluten-free and wheat-based products. Gluten-free crackers were found to be 270% more expensive than ones made with gluten-containing flours. Staples like bread and pasta were also significantly more costly – at 229% and 227% more expensive, respectively.
One analysis of the data (4) found that regular supermarkets had greater availability of gluten-free foods (18 of 20 items, or 90%, were available in gluten-free versions), but budget supermarkets and corner shops had almost no gluten-free versions (with only 1.8 of 20 items, or 9%, available in gluten-free versions). All 10 gluten-free versions of wheat-based foods were more costly than their standard counterparts (76–518% more expensive).
In a survey conducted by GIG in 2021, 78% of respondents from the gluten-free community said that the cost of gluten-free food was the biggest challenge they faced living gluten-free. 38% said that access to gluten-free food overall is a challenge. The places where people shop, or can access food, affects not just pricing but the availability of gluten-free products.
The Effects of COVID on Maintaining a Gluten-Free Diet
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the challenges that individuals who require a gluten-free diet were already experiencing in non-pandemic conditions. A study looking at the effects of the pandemic (5) found that the consequences of long-term isolation measures included that “clinical status of diseases, access to food, and mental health are most relevant in patients with gluten-related disorders that must keep treatment with gluten-free diet.”
The study concluded that COVID-19 contributed to job losses, food shortages, price increases, limited access to safe foods, poor access to medical care, and increased symptoms in people with celiac disease. The pandemic has complicated an already difficult situation for people experiencing food insecurity and compounds the additional challenges of trying to stick to a gluten-free diet.
The High Cost of Gluten-Free Food
A new nonprofit, GIG Cares, is working to address the issue of food insecurity in the gluten-free community. Through a monthly care package full of GFCO-certified gluten-free products, GIG Cares provides food assistance for individuals and families facing gluten-free food insecurity. If you, or someone you know, needs assistance obtaining certified gluten-free food, apply to be considered for the GIG Cares support program. If you would like to support the effort, learn more or donate at www.gigcares.org.
- Food Insecurity Negatively Impacts Gluten Avoidance and Nutritional Intake in Patients With Celiac Disease https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34802022/
- Socioeconomic Risk Factors for Celiac Disease Burden and Symptoms https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26084006/
- Persistent Economic Burden of the Gluten Free Diet https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30769836/
- Limited availability and higher cost of gluten-free foods https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21605198/
- Pandemic Effects and Gluten-Free Diet: An Adherence and Mental Health Problem (PDF) https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/13/6/1822/pdf