Price Check: How to cut the cost of a gluten-free diet

Grocery shopping in the gluten-free aisle always makes my stomach ache. I’m not ungrateful that gluten-free products exist for those of us with gluten sensitivity, gluten curiosity, or full-on Celiac disease (like me). But my tummy grumbles and my wallet bloats whenever I try to digest the 200% price increase of gluten-free foods over the regular wheat-filled versions.

Living a life without wheat, rye, and barley doesn’t have to increase your grocery bill. Promise. Since I’ve dined on a gluten-free diet for nearly 10 years and survived a few shopping mistakes and missteps, I’ll share my stealth ways of eating less gluten without paying the steep price.

gluten free

It all starts with a trip to your local supermarket and a grocery shopping list.

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1. Attack of the Clones

Attempting to clone your old food favorites with gluten-free alternatives will cost you. Star Wars prequels miss the magic of the original series (hello, Harrison Ford?), and swapping regular packaged products for gluten-free packaged products won’t get you Harrison Ford either. I know. I’ve tried. Nothing compares to the real thing, and the gluten-free thing is expensive.

While the market for gluten-free food is exploding and having variety is great, the price you’ll pay for gluten-free cakes, cookies, brownies, and bread may implode your budget. I took a turn around my local grocery store to show you the belly busting damage.

gluten free cornflakes

What’s for breakfast? Hopefully not a daily morning meal of Glutino gluten-free cornflakes, ’cause a tiny bowl of this wheat-free stuff will cost ya 191% more than the regular Kelloggs brand featuring a rooster. Cockadoodledon’t.

gluten free crackers

Snack attack? Want some crackers with that cheese? The 467% price increase for every 100g of gluten-free cracker won’t put a smile on your face, or make you feel like Ritzing it up.

gluten free cookie

Piss off a GF Cookie Monster. Mmmmm, sink your teeth into an almost homemade gluten-free cookie and pay 70% more than the wheated bakery-style dozen. Chewy, gooey, costly, cookies. Grrrrr.

gluten free brownie

But they’re bite sized! Take two bites from these gluten-free mini brownies and pay 29% more for doughy chocolate without the dough. Notice how the gluten-free version sells in a 20g smaller size? Two less bites for you!

Bottom Line: Going gluten-free shouldn’t be about swapping [Brand Name Boxed Food Thing] with [Gluten-free Boxed Food Thing]. If you think outside the box, you’ll save a lot of money and likely eat healthier too.

You know many of the gluten-free speciality foods are often refined, have been stripped of nutrients and fiber (goodbye, wheat bran!), and lack the fortified vitamins and minerals of foods containing wheat flour? Yeppers. Check the labels before buying this gluten-free stuff and you may see that you’re paying more for foods higher in sodium, sugar, and carbohydrates. Digest that for a minute.

So whenever a costly gluten-free clone strikes your fancy, pretend the box includes one free Jar Jar Binks, and strike back by buying something else.

2. Go for real gluten-free foods

Going gluten-free doesn’t mean you need to buy foods boasting gluten-free labels. Open your eyes in the grocer’s produce, meat, and dairy aisles and you’ll see plenty of gluten-free eats without the specialty price tags.

gluten free foods

Fruits, vegetables, eggs, chicken (doesn’t matter which one came first), fish, beef, legumes, and many pseudocereals are all naturally gluten-free, priced like normal food (’cause they are normal food), and generally healthy. They’re called whole foods, people, and they’re delicious. Stock up on real gluten-free foods and you won’t miss the gluten.

potatoes bean rice

What you might miss are carbohydrates. So let me reintroduce you to potatoes, rice, beans, and oatmeal. These GF options contain no gluten and can send your blood sugar soaring with a sweet carbohydrate hit, without the expense. Since these foods may be bought in bulk and on sale, it’s easy to stock up without the sticker shock of gluten-free pastas, breads, and crackers.

gluten free food

Warning: Be wary of adding sauces, drizzling dressings, and dipping into dips if you’re seriously gluten sensitive. Many salad dressings, BBQ sauces, and tasty dips can contain wheat, barley, or rye — sending you into glutenized gastrointestinal grief. Always read labels, and watch out for these hidden traces of gluten. Soy sauce is the worst. Don’t get me started. Grumble.

Bottom Line: Everyone pays the same price for regular food, whether you’re gluten-free or not.

3. Discover new ingredients

There’s a new wheat in town, and his name is ‘Buck’. Unlike other grains with the ‘wheat’ surname, ‘Buck’ doesn’t contain any wheat at all. He doesn’t cost big bucks either.

buckwheat


Despite the unfortunate cereal-sounding moniker, buckwheat is a tasty seed sharing a kinship with rhubarb and sorrels. Swap out your boring potatoes and rice, and try a little buckwheat as a side dish and you may increase the nutritional makeup of your meal. Buy your buckwheat in bulk and you’ll save a little moolah.

quinoa

Another great option for the rice-weary and potato-bored is quinoa, a tiny seed high in protein and lower in carbohydrates than most cereal-like grains. I buy it at Costco for big savings. Here’s how to cook quinoa with some recipes too.

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Bottom Line: Venture beyond the regular seeds and grains and you’ll find tasty (and affordable) gluten-free alternatives to serve for dinner.

4. Find affordable flour

Gluten-free flour is expensive. Walk into any grocery store or specialty health food store and expect to pay big bucks for a simple, all-purpose flour.

gluten free flour

Forget saving money with generic or no-name products when you’re living wheat-free. Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-free All-Purpose Flour costs 760% more than the stuff sold in bright yellow packaging.

Boring bread mix isn’t exactly a steal either.

gluten free bread

Bake your own gluten-free bread and pay nearly 50% more than Robin Hood brand mix. Who’s stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, again?

Don’t fear, cookie mixes will leave you feeling robbed too.

gluten free cookie mix

Choke on a gluten-free chocolate chip cookie made from a mix and pay 238% more than the stuff sold by Quaker. No cookies for you.

Here are a few tactics for those in need of GF flour (and other items) without the crazy prices.

Mix your own flour.

There is a dizzying array of gluten-free flours on the market. Let’s start with whole grain flours (brown rice, buckwheat, oat, quinoa, sorghum), white flours (rice, potato, tapioca, arrowroot), nut flours (almond, coconut), and then end with bean flours (garbanzo, fava). The type of flour you use and the blend you mix depends on your baking requirements and personal taste.

I like to save money with The Gluten-Free Girl’s 40/60 mix of 40% whole grain and 60% white flours/starches. This way I can buy whatever gluten-free flours are on sale in these categories and mix up a big batch of all-purpose flour when the price is right.

Check out The Gluten-Free Girl’s all-purpose flour mix for the details. The video is good too.

When you find the mix you like, scout for sales and stock up.

Shop online.

Popular GF brands like Bob’s Red Mill can have sales online, but the biggest GF savings I’ve sleuthed are on Amazon.

Being a Canuck I don’t qualify for Amazon’s ‘Subscribe & Save’ feature where food items can be bought in bulk at discount and shipped directly (for free) to your home address. If I lived in the States, I’d be livin’ life to the gluten-free fullest with either Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-free All-Purpose Flour or Better Batter Gluten-Free Flour delivered on demand. Sorry Canucks, I feel your pain.

Buy in bulk. Use coupons. Plan Meals. Leftovers.

Anyone who’s read my blog for a while *might* be familiar with The Definitive Guide: 22 Ways to get a discount on anything. This three-part series includes tips and tricks for buying a wide variety of items for less. Why not apply a few of these tips to gluten-free foods?

The Definitive Guide: 22 Ways to get a discount on anything

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The Definitive Guide: 22 Ways to get a discount on anything

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Part Three lists popular couponing sites and bulk buying options, while Part Two shows you how watching the price scanner at checkout can score you free food.

I’ve also written a lot of posts devoted to my love of leftovers. Cooking bigger meals and eating leftovers for lunch can help cut the costs of buying, or baking, costly GF sandwich bread. See 20 Tasty ways to love your slighted leftovers and The Organized Fridge for details.

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Heck, download my friendly and free meal planner to get all your gluten-free meals organized for less.

Go without.

I often go without special gluten-free foods, and I’m never saddened to say, “I can’t afford it.” Opt to eat naturally gluten-free foods and you’ll be just fine — both your bowel and budget may thank you in the end.

Bottom Line: I just gave you seven ways to save money on gluten-free flour. Pick one, or play with all seven. I’m cool like that.

5. File your taxes?

Canadians diagnosed with Celiac disease can claim the ‘incremental cost’ of their gluten-free foods as a medical expense on that super fun annual paperwork known as ‘The Tax Return’. Tax filers will need to study CRA’s chart to figure what ‘incremental cost’ means, but you could save a few dollars (not enough, thank you) on the high cost of gluten-free foods. To qualify you’ll have to take a brutal blood test and perhaps offer a biopsy as proof that your gut can’t handle gluten. Yes, you should ask for a doctor’s note too. Sigh.

See Claiming gluten-free products as a medical expense on your friendly neighbourhood CRA website.

The rules for claiming medical expenses in the United States are varied. Americans with Celiac disease should track all GF food costs, contact a local Celiac chapter, and use all allowable state and IRS deductions possible.

Bottom Line: You won’t save a fortune by claiming gluten-free items as a medical expense. But every deduction helps, right?

6. Seek out the right resources

I’ve mentioned a few resources along the way, but these are the ones I frequent.

  • Celiac Disease Foundation: Americans can find the latest research, get access to local doctors, and connect with others looking to live gluten-free.

Anyone else out there trying, or living on, a gluten-free diet? I would love to hear your wheat-free advice!

Love,
Kerry

Your two cents:

  1. Anne November 26th, 2012

    I couldn’t agree more. I may or may not be Celiac but I definitely break out in a nasty rashe when I eat anything with wheat in it. I’ve been eating this way for 4 or more years now. I mix my own GF flour mix (brown rice, sorghum, teff and millet, is the present favourite), bake my own bread (now I use the bread maker I got for $5.00 at a thrift store) and any goodies I have the time for. My work lunches are usually mixed veg (raw or cooked) with some kind of protein and a little oil and vinegar.
    Store bought GF bread, crackers and goodies are way too expensive to even think about and for the most part aren’t worth the price. Maybe that’s why in the 2nd and 3rd year of eating this way I lost 40 lbs.
    Unfortunately, I find I can only eat oats that are processed in wheat free plants (the rash leaves no doubt) making my oatmeal porridge more of a treat than a staple.
    Eating GF (or wheat free) does not have to be expensive.

  2. dlm November 27th, 2012

    I lost the constant gutache when I quit eating starchy/bready foods. When I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 15 years ago, I was lucky enough to find Dr. Richard K. Bernstein’s Diabetic Doctor’s Diet Books which explain how insulin creates fat from starchy as well as sugary foods. Also Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It. And all low carb books. And Paleo Diets. They all show how carbs make us fat and sick and the more we stay away from them the better chance of decent health we have. Steak and Salad is not deprivation. Protein, fat and green veg keep pain (and fat and drugs) away.

  3. Stacey November 27th, 2012

    What about a completely grain free diet? We are doing GAPS for our 2 1/2 year old and our food bill skyrocketed from about $500 to $1000 per month! We are sourcing raw milk and pastured eggs locally, grass fed meats online, and organic produce at the nearby Whole Foods. We are trying to be super frugal and we buy zero processed food items, but cutting out grains (which has been AMAZING for our family) has really tipped the scale on our food budget. Eek!!! We even do things like use the bones from a chicken to make broth, make soups in bulk, divide bulk meat into single servings, etc…

  4. Donna Jennison November 27th, 2012

    Good, well presented advice as always. But,if you’re going to eat Kellog’s cornflakes keep this in mind. Unless a product is organic, the chances of it containng GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) is around 80%. A recent two year study has shown that rats fed exclusively a GMO corn diet for two years developed massive tumours, cancer and experienced organ failure and premature death. GMO’s have been developed by chemical companies like Monsanto and GM corn, soy and sugar is in pretty much all prepared foods. There is some speculation that the rise in intestinal problems (celiac, gluten intolerance, crohns, IBS), as well as other inflammatory diseases is due to the presence of GMO’s in our food. Kellogs spent millions in the recent vote around GMO labelling in California to prevent the labelling of GMO food….what are they hiding exactly? My adive…don’t buy anything that may contain GMO’s…especially corn flakes.

  5. Sue November 27th, 2012

    I’ve sent emails to gluten free companies (like Glutino) and received multiple coupons off their products, including free and BOGO coupons. I wouldn’t pay full fare for these products, but it’s nice to have something on hand once in a while. Costco now carries Silver Hills gluten free bread for a more reasonable price, too.

  6. 7kidsintx November 28th, 2012

    Asian stores are great places to buy bulk rice as well as potato and tapioca starch. They are far less expensive than Bob’s Red Mill. I also order bulk rice flour from honeyvillegrain.com and bulk sorghum flour from Twin Valley Mills. I don’t know how much shipping would be to Canada, but in the US these are both great deals. Our whole family eats gf (7 kids) and baked goods are a must with school functions and birthday parties. Buying from these sources greatly lowers the sticker shock.

  7. Tushar @ Everything Finance November 28th, 2012

    Wow, I never realized how much more expensive gluten free food is! It’s better for you no matter which way you cut it, but it obviously comes at a huge cost. I like your suggestion to eat real gluten free food – there’s a lot of it out there if you are willing.

  8. Lili@creativesavv December 1st, 2012

    I think eating real foods is very sensible. Even when I’ve tried to make rice flour behave like wheat by adding xanthan gum, my baked goods never tasted quite right. When I go g-free, I just concentrate on eating other grains, cooked in pilafs and such.

    Kerry, do you have a favorite gluten-free grain?

  9. Andy December 20th, 2012

    Wow great article and information. Passed this on to a colleague at work who is now oa strict gluten diet, this was an eye opening post for her.

  10. eileen fiell December 20th, 2013

    Dear Kerry,

    I love your thrifty genes which remind me of my mom and then me. First read your ‘cheap’ wedding blog and was very impressed. I wish all young women were so sensible.
    Re GF flour, I recently tried three recipes using Robin Hood GF flour and am not very impressed so far. One batch of muffins using part buckwheat flour and banana and yogurt turned out OK but some shortbread using a standard recipe is not great and very grainy. I think RH is not using superfine rice flour or maybe it is the sugar beet fibre. Product looks brown!. We have not tested the matrimonial squares yet but hope that the grainyness will disappear in the oatmeal. To be fair with RH, one should follow their recipes before complaining about results. The grainy character will not disappear however. I will finish up this flour where I can disguise it and then bite the bullet and make my own. I have read that one mix will not work for all baking and you need one for bread stuff and another for sweet stuff.
    Any comment??

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