Breaking the bank: why having a food intolerance proves costly.

The financial burden that comes with specialised diets and what can be done to lower the cost.

Grocery shopping is a painstaking and tedious task for most. Some may find themselves browsing the aisles, entering the store with only a few items on their shopping list and leaving with a trolley full of groceries.

According to the latest research performed by, the average Australian spends $300 a week on food, completely blowing their budget.

Though, with the increasing costs of eating out and the gradual growth in the price of essential products, spending up to $300 on meals weekly becomes achievable.

But for some, a $300 bill for a week’s worth of food is the ultimate dream. For those living with a food intolerance, grocery shopping and eating out can break the bank.

Dairy, soy, fructose and wheat are the most prevalent food intolerances within Australia. Lactose intolerance is the most common with 3 in 4 Australians lactose intolerant to some degree.

Having a food intolerance can impact the quality of life if a strict diet isn’t followed. So how does one justify charging an individual double the price for a nutrition substitute that is essential to an individual’s health?

A food intolerance occurs when an individual is unable to properly digest a particular nutrient, whether that be lactose, the fructans in wheat or another substrate altogether. This can also be defined as a sensitivity to a particular food, contributing towards symptoms such as intestinal gas and abdominal pain.

Using lactose as an example, foods such as cream, milk and yoghurt which contain the sugar can go through a process where the substrate is broken down. To make milk lactose-free, the digestive enzyme lactase is added to regular milk, breaking down lactose into smaller sugars, making them easier to digest. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lactose.png

Accredited practising dietitian (APD) Joanna Baker believes such processes contribute to the high-cost of specialised products as they are more expensive to produce and need to be assessed to determine if they meet the criteria. 

“[As an] example, for a product to be labelled [gluten-free], it must be tested and proven to contain no detectable gluten,” she tells The Modern Day Typewriter.

“In this case, not only are there procedures a factory must implement to make the product [which go] above and beyond normal procedures, but they must also be tested.”

Products that go through this process are then placed on shelves with a steeper than usual price-tag. However, Baker explains that even though there are products that have gone through the process to be purchased by those suffering from a food intolerance, cheaper alternatives will always be available.

Substitute products can be identified by reading a product’s ingredients label. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, Australia has the toughest labelling laws in the world, this a significant help for individuals who need to judge whether a product is suitable from its ingredients.

Label reading may take some practice at first, but Baker says research suggests that by working with a specialised dietitian, patients “are better at label reading and choosing ‘normal’ products that are suitable”.

However, balancing the financial haul that comes with managing a diet doesn’t just require knowing your way around the supermarket. There are several at-home approaches that can also save money. Frances Walker, APD from The Food Intolerance Dietitian says going back to basics can be a great way of lowering the overall expenditure of having a food-intolerance.

“A range of strategies can be successfully employed to reduce the cost of specialised diets starting off with being aware of the most costly proponents of the diet,” Walker says.

Walker also suggests the following strategies which can help in lowering the overall cost of grocery bills:

There are ways around spending a small fortune on essential products that can improve the quality of life for those suffering from an intolerance. However, the reality still exists that to purchase these products you must be willing to pay the price.

  • Growing fruits and vegetables from home.
  • Considering which regular foods can be used as replacements rather than purchasing labelled products; e.g. using an aged cheese that has lower levels of lactose rather than purchasing a lactose-free labelled cheese.
  • Find suitable, “easy to use and up to date recipes” which are usually cheaper than pre-made products and make these meals in bulk to freeze for future meals.
  • Ensuring that your diet includes the essentials: vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes.

The Celiac Disease Foundation explains that there are a number of countries that provide subsidies for those who have to pay extra for their groceries, due to having an intolerance.Unfortunately, Australian’s with food-intolerances don’t fit this category, leaving many to fend for themselves.

APD Kim Menzies from What’s your gut feeling?, believes that it’s up to consumers to point out to retailers that some form of compromise should be made to lower the cost of food substitutes for individuals with intolerances.

“Consumers need to be their own advocates in providing feedback to the retailers as well as with [their] support groups to be advocates,” Menzies says.

A world where the price of groceries and dining services didn’t exceed $300 a week is one we can only imagine, no matter the diet one must follow. However, perhaps the price difference in specialised diet products compared to standard diets unveils an underlying issue. Is there really more to gain from expensive dietary substitutes, or is it just a marketing scheme?

Clipart: The images for the ‘Intolerant-free foods versus standard home products’ and ‘The process of making a lactose product lactose-free’ infographics were used under Canva’s Free Media License Agreement. The images have not been modified.

Photo: “Money” by Picture of money available HERE and used under a Creative Commons Attribution.

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