Eating Shouldn’t Be Expensive

Being celiac is significantly more expensive than it should be.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Natalie Soler

My younger brother was diagnosed with celiac disease in May 2022. Celiac is a genetic disease that causes an immune reaction to gluten, a byproduct of wheat, which can lead to malnutrition and damage to the small intestine. My brother had to eliminate all gluten from his diet, which severely limited his food choices; bread, pasta, and even soy sauce had to be cut out at first. However, the choices now are more diverse than they used to be due to increased awareness about celiac disease and experimentation with gluten-free flour substitutes.

My brother’s diagnosis led to an increase in baking in my family, often using these gluten-free flour substitutes. My mother and I made pancakes and cookies using the new flour, and the recipes all turned out great. But we noticed the large price tag that accompanied the new ingredients. At Target, a 44-oz bag of gluten-free flour can cost almost 10 dollars, and that’s on the cheaper end. At the same Target, you can get five pounds of normal flour for $2.50. For almost double the amount, normal flour comes at a quarter of the price. Once it’s labeled gluten-free, everything becomes more expensive.

Gluten-free food items can cost up to 183 percent more than gluten products. Part of this is due to the care it takes to make gluten-free food for people with celiac disease. Find Me Gluten Free is a review app for gluten-free food in restaurants that my family uses, and one of the questions is if the restaurant has a separate kitchen for their gluten-free items. While this may sound unrealistic, restaurants must account for the risk of cross-contamination using separate, dedicated machines. These machines may cost the restaurants more, but the price of accessibility shouldn’t fall on those with celiac disease. As Jenny Levine Finke, author of Dear Gluten, It’s Not You, It’s Me, says on her website, in the same way that ramps for wheelchair users and high chairs for toddlers are free, gluten-free accessibility should be expected without a price tag. People with celiac disease shouldn’t have to shoulder the brunt of these expensive prices.

Another factor keeping the prices up for gluten-free foods is non-medical demand. In the United States right now, gluten-free isn’t thought of as a celiac issue, but as a diet trend. In 2015, a study showed that 20 percent of Americans actively kept gluten out of their diet because they believed it was healthier. This trend was popularized by lifestyle bloggers through social media and spread incredibly quickly and far. Celebrities hopped on the trend, like Gwyneth Paltrow, who wrote a gluten-free cookbook promising that it would help one lose weight and feel healthy. Lady Gaga and Kourtney Kardashian, as well as many others, continued the trend for the same reasons. Even after the craze died down, many “gluten-free” items still cater to dieters rather than people with celiac disease. For example, my dad bought beer that claimed to be gluten-free to draw in people seeking a gluten-free diet. The beer, after claiming that it has less gluten, quickly puts in a disclaimer that it’s not actually “gluten-free.” This view of gluten-free as a harmless trend takes away from the medical seriousness of celiac disease.

People who go gluten-free do so thinking that it’s healthier, but that only trivializes nutritional health, making gluten out to be the villain. Though this diet attempts to cut out processed grains, which are bad for the human body, it comes with a certain amount of risk. Professionals instead recommend including more whole grain products in one’s diet. Ultimately, going gluten-free without a medical reason isn’t the miracle cure people are looking for but rather a small trend to tide them over. While this boom in the popularity of gluten-free eating increased diversity in the foods available, it also raised their prices by treating gluten-free diets as something cosmetic instead of life-saving.

The experience of needed foods being blocked by high prices is a widespread issue for anyone with dietary restrictions, such as veganism, lactose intolerance, and vegetarianism. All of these foods require different, in-depth procedures that get them on shelves and medically safe. But still ingrained in these other diets’ prices is the non-medical demand popularized by the media. For example, Kourtney Kardashian switched her and her kids to a dairy-free diet. The dairy-free diet had been gaining popularity at the time, and with it came a rise of fear over “intolerance.” Many people joined the trend with their new-found intolerance. Many ignore the inflated prices of needed food since it doesn’t seem to affect them, only a minority of the population. But this “minority” is millions of people in the United States with food allergies or eating restrictions. We can’t continue to look the other way.

My family has been lucky that being gluten-free isn’t a financial issue, but we are the exception. These high prices limit those who are celiac from getting the food they need. The United States government needs a new system for its celiac citizens, which requires looking outward. For example, in Italy, the government gives out monthly gluten-free food vouchers for up to 140 euros. By creating this system, Italy lets its people know that it takes celiac seriously. At the moment, there’s not enough seriousness surrounding celiac disease and gluten-free foods in the United States. If the U.S. could implement these vouchers, they would truly help patients combat celiac disease, as well as the expensive nature of gluten-free food. Though this wouldn’t solve the inflated prices of gluten-free foods, since they’re caused by many different factors, it would help people see gluten-free as a celiac issue and not an internet trend.

Though some Americans might argue against this on a financial basis, claiming that handouts are unreasonable, this isn’t just a financial problem—this is about how the United States is addressing the health of its citizens. These vouchers could be an important safety blanket so that anyone who is gluten-free now or who might get diagnosed in the future won’t have to worry about financial blockades to their health. Money shouldn’t limit lives.