Going with your gut can be hard on the family budget
Gluten-free shopping is an expensive but popular trend, writes Grainne Cunningham
There are times when it seems the whole world is on one diet or another. Whether it is out of desire to lose weight or feel healthier, more people are switching to gluten-free food, despite the heftier price tag.
In 2013, total sales of gluten-free products were valued at €10.8m by Euromonitor, compared to €9m in 2011. One in four shoppers buy gluten-free products now, compared to just 6pc four years ago.
According to the Coeliac Society of Ireland, Irish people are more prone than other nationalities to develop coeliac disease, a disorder in the small intestine that causes damage when wheat, barley or rye products are eaten.
Emma Clarke Conway, spokeswoman for the society, says the burgeoning number of gluten-free shoppers divide roughly into two groups - those who have been diagnosed as coeliac and those who simply choose to go gluten-free because it makes them feel better.
Emma stresses that for coeliacs, who number one in every 100 Irish people, gluten-free is not a fad, it's a necessity. And buying special foods means a higher weekly shopping bill, with a coeliac-friendly basket costing up to 87pc more than the usual fare.
On the plus side, however, the rise in popularity in gluten-free products means that all the major supermarkets are stocking more. "For instance, in the past couple of weeks, Aldi has started an extensive range of gluten-free products. It is very positive for people," she says.
However, where there are a number of coeliacs in one household or for those who rely on the local store, shopping for ordinary staples such as cornflakes or bread can be an expensive business.
For instance, a 375g box of Whole Earth Maple cornflakes costs about €4.45, according to a recent Coeliac Society survey. Meanwhile, a box of Kellogg's Fruit and Fibre, which is twice as big at 750g, costs €4.62.
Most supermarkets offer frozen pizzas for around €2.50 to €3 each but Kelkin's pizza base is €3, and you still have to buy all the toppings. However, you will be eating a healthier, better-quality pizza when you have finished.
"The manufacturers have definitely responded, though you may need to search to find a bread you like," says Emma.
"It's important to find something you like rather than risk breaking the diet." The Coeliac Society would like to see "more support for vulnerable coeliacs".
Government subsidies for gluten-free foods have ceased but if you are diagnosed coeliac, you can claim tax back for any gluten-free products you buy, as part of your medical expenses.
For those suffering from allergies or for those who are simply living a 'free-from' life, there are two major exhibitions taking place soon. The Allergy & Free From Expos is on at the RDS, Dublin on October 11 and 12, and at City Hall, Cork on November 8 and 9.
‘I have so much more energy since going gluten-free’
Charlotte Stevens is one of the growing number of people who are not diagnosed as coeliac but who have found they feel better if they avoid foods containing gluten.
Charlotte discovered she was extremely anaemic two years ago and went on a gluten-free diet in a desperate bid to see if it would make a difference.
"I never imagined it would work. I have always been sceptical of people who are allergic to this or that."
Five days in to following a gluten-free regime, Charlotte tried a "tiny bite of pizza' and was surprised at how unwell she felt afterwards.
"I just feel very foggy, like I have the worst hangover in the world, if I eat anything with wheat in it. It's just not worth it.''
Charlotte is a keen runner and also commutes to work by bicycle twice a week.
Since she switched to gluten free, she feels she has more energy and her general well-being has improved.
But switching to a gluten-free diet has had an impact on her household budget. "Coeliac products are more expensive, particularly breakfast cereals".
Charlotte finds it relatively easy to avoid gluten at dinner time but the mornings are challenging because she would like a bowl of cereal or a slice of toast, which can cost twice or three times the price of the 'normal' alternative.
"Gluten-free foods tend to be good-quality products so you are forced to upgrade."
However, Charlotte says that the ranges available in the supermarkets are increasing all the time, with progressively more shelf space given over to them. She believes that she is lucky because she loves to bake so she is not forced to buy gluten-free treats. Even still, this is a costly business because she uses ground almonds as a flour substitute to make her much-loved chocolate brownies.
A tray of the brownies, which are cooked with organic eggs too, costs about €15 to make.
"But you are getting a very high-quality product," Charlotte stresses.
"And the whole family love to see them coming out of the oven."