Why are “free from” foods so expensive? Cost of living with a dietary requirement

Collage of someone cringing from cheap foods they can't eat because of their dietary requirement.

The eye-watering cost of living has been on everyone’s minds this year, especially regarding necessities like groceries. According to award-winning budgeting app Frollo, the average grocery shopping spending has increased by 24% in the last year.

Nearly every food group has been affected by inflation, from fruit and vegetables to meat, grains, and dairy (not to mention all their products).

But while comparing products and substituting for cheaper alternatives can be a helpful cost-crunching tip, not everyone has that luxury when it comes to food. Many Australians live with a dietary requirement that limits their choice and squeezes their wallet far more than the average eater.

So how much does it cost to live with a dietary restriction? And why are food substitutes so expensive?

How much does it cost to be “free from”? Price difference for allergy friendly foods

Collage of someone with a shopping tote bag full of groceries.

“Free from” food groups have become a popular item in recent years, whether it’s free from gluten, meat, lactose, dairy, egg, tree nuts, shellfish, soy, and so forth. But alternatives usually come at a steeper price than their mainstream varieties.

Let’s break down some common substitutes^ to show the price difference at Coles and Woolworths. 

VEGAN, VEGETARIAN, HALAL & KOSHER

Plant-based “meat” products have surged in recent years thanks to a rise in vegetarianism and sustainable trends like “Meatless Mondays”. Yet despite their popularity, many vegan meat substitutes are over $5 more expensive. Not to mention the mind-boggling prices for religious-safe meats, like Halal or Kosher mince. 

Average price difference: $11.04 per KGColesWoolworthsAverage
Vegan mince
$18.75
$18.75
$18.75
Kosher mince$33.00(Out of stock)$33.00
Halal mince$25.00(Out of stock)$25.00
Regular mince$13.00$13.00$13.00
Average price difference: $2.82 per 100 gramsColesWoolworthsAverage
Egg replacer
$2.50
$4.64
$3.57
Regular eggs$0.75$0.75$0.75

GLUTEN FREE

Gluten-free food has been pioneered since coeliac disease was discovered in the 1950s. But despite having more (delicious) choices than ever, one of the most common dietary requirements still stings at the checkout.

Average price difference: $0.69 per 100 gramsColesWoolworthsAverage
GF bread
$0.96
$1.00
$0.98
Regular bread$0.29$0.29$0.29
Average price difference: $0.60 per 100 gramsColesWoolworthsAverage
GF spaghetti
$0.50
$1.06
$0.78
Regular spaghetti$0.16$0.20$0.18

LACTOSE AND DAIRY FREE

Ostensibly, the only true difference between lactose-free milk and regular milk is that the former has the enzyme lactase added to aid digestion. The price gap also widens considerably when dairy-free alternatives, such as soy, almond, cashew, rice, and oat milk, are considered**.

Average price difference: $0.70 per LColesWoolworthsAverage
Lactose-free milk
$2.60
$2.60
$2.60
Soy milk$2.60$2.30$2.45
Rice milk$3.30$3.10$3.20
Oat milk$3.50$2.70$3.10
Almond milk$3.80$3.10$3.45
Regular milk$1.60$1.60$1.60

**Note: this comparison is for refrigerated milk. Long-life milk tends to come slightly cheaper. 

^Note: prices are averaged for October 2022 and do not include sale discounts or seasonal variations. You may be able to find cheaper alternatives at local grocery stores, butcheries, or farmers' markets. Comparisons have only been made between the most affordable comparable products in size/volume and cooking use.

How many Australians have food allergies or intolerances?

Collage of hands holding common food allergens: shellfish, meat, burgers (gluten), ice cream (dairy).

Quantifying how many Australians follow specific diets is tricky, since lifestyles and eating habits change over time. Plus, it’s common for intolerances to have comorbidities, so the same person may have multiple dietary requirements. (For example, people with coeliac disease are also likely to have problems digesting dairy and other FODMAPs).

Allergies can also develop later in life as resistance wears down and the immune system changes. Discovering at age 40 you’ve been coeliac all along can be a nasty shock – and have severe health implications, too!

Still, many studies have shown that the number of Aussies following a specialised diet may be higher than you think. For instance, one recent study estimated that up to 25% of Australians live with a food intolerance or allergy

An estimated 1 in 70 Australians has coeliac disease, the only cure for which is following a strict gluten-free diet for the rest of their life. More distressingly, up to 80% of people with coeliac disease might not know it. 

Meanwhile, 1 in 20 Australians is lactose intolerant, a condition that disproportionately affects children and people of colour. 

Anaphylaxis – a severe allergic reaction requiring emergency medical treatment – is also on the rise. According to the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Healthcare, the number of Australians coming to the emergency room with acute anaphylaxis symptoms rose by more than 51% between 2015 - 2020.

Even less medically-urgent diets like veganism or vegetarianism have surged in popularity, though it’s not uncommon to be allergic to shellfish or red meat. In 2019, Roy Morgan reported that 12.1% of Australians followed a mostly or all-vegetarian diet, up from 11% in 2014.

Australia’s booming halal food market is valued at $1.7 billion annually, while estimates put the annual grocery spent on kosher food at $400 million.

With so many Australians needing specialised foods to live happy and healthy lives, why are their options so expensive?

Why does it cost more to have a dietary requirement?

Collage of a hand scanning a credit card...in space.

There are many reasons why food alternatives like gluten-free bread or vegan meat are more expensive than their regular counterparts, but in short: capitalism. 

Catering to highly specialised diets while still complying with food safety regulations often means dedicated production facilities, careful supply chain management, and a reduced buyer’s market. Without high or popular demand, companies don’t have incentive to keep the prices low. 

Even restaurants will charge extra to substitute vegan, gluten-free, or dairy-free options, though this may be more to cover the costs of buying supplies than demand.

How to keep grocery costs down if you have a food intolerance or allergy

Collage of a satchel string bag of fruit rising from a smartphone like a zombie.

Getting your nutrition while keeping grocery bills within budget can be a tricky needle to thread at the best of times, but having an allergy, intolerance, or dietary restriction makes it that much harder.

Some sneaky strategies that could help keep costs down include:

  • Buy in bulk. Whether going straight to the source at a wholesale store or lugging the kilo of rice home yourself, it’s often cheaper to buy in bulk.
  • Buy local and in season. Go with the seasonal flow and support local businesses. Your local grocer or butcher might have cheaper and better quality produce than chains like Coles and Woolies. 
  • DIY and meal prep. Don’t opt for the premade, allergen-friendly cookies when you can bake them yourself! Meal prep to avoid eating out and spending lots on premade wares from the supermarket. 
  • Compare grocery stores. While Woolworths and Coles often aligned in price for our little comparison above, they weren’t always the same. Shop around to see if you can get a better deal before checkout.
  • Keep an eye out for sales and price drops. Discounts always make the biggest difference, so keep an eye on your favourite go-to items like a hawk. When the price drops, it’s time to buy ahead of time. 
  • Order groceries online. Ordering online can be a great way to watch your total before you hit the checkout. You can simultaneously compare products and prices between supermarkets while at it!
  • Opt for long-life or frozen foods. Long-life milk often comes cheaper per litre than refrigerated milk. Yeah, they don’t always taste the same, but saving money can make things that much sweeter. Frozen fruit and veggies can also be a cost-effective option. 
  • Don’t be afraid to explore and experiment (within reason). If your favourite product has a hefty price tag, don’t be afraid to try out other choices. Explore food groups, work with a nutritionist or dietician, and see if there are other options you might like better. 

With any luck, these workarounds might help make a dietary requirement feel less like a burden. After all, it’s worth it to feel better!

Looking for more cost of living tips? Head over to our family finances hub. If you’re keen to track your daily expenses, check out these seven best budgeting and money management apps.

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