"Supermarket gluten-free food rip-off" said the Sun. "The gluten-free food price shock" said the Mail.
The stories were based on research by Channel 4's Supershoppers, which was screened yesterday at 8.30pm.
The claim? That gluten-free shoppers are being diddled by questionable supermarket price hikes on foods suitable for coeliacs, far in reasonable excess of non free-from equivalents.
Why is free-from food so pricey?
I get asked this a lot, and I imagine there are many reasons, mostly to do with the fact that such products are manufactured in smaller quantities, therefore the usual savings involved in 'bulk' production aren't going to be available. Other reasons?
* Allergen control - this is expensive, and could involve increased costs of laboratory allergen testing, plus more rigid and careful cross-contamination protocols and checks.
* More expensive ingredients - specialist ingredients that may be required, to replace cheaper wheat or dairy ingredients, for instance, as well as dearer ingredients sourced from companies who in turn have to have more careful allergen control.
* Multiple free-from qualities - it's not just about gluten. Eliminating other allergens to assist those with additional allergies may add to costs, if further 'free from' claims are to be made.
* It's still a bit niche - despite all the talk of growth over the last decade, and that's still to come, it remains a small percentage of the market, and less competition means prices aren't squeezed downwards as quickly as we might hope.
* Other reasons that we can't know - I'm speculating here, but if you manufacture free-from you may be more at risk of product recalls and litigation. Might this add to insurance / liability cover? Possible.
Free from vs Non Free from
Let's look at two of the products considered by the show.
Tesco FreeFrom Tomato Ketchup is £1.20 and ordinary Tesco Tomato Ketchup is 65p. Both appear to be free from all 14 allergens, with no 'may contains', but the FreeFrom version makes gluten, dairy and mustard-free claims. Reason to justify almost doubling of cost? Actually, no I don't think so.
Tesco FreeFrom White Lasagne Sauce is £2 (right) and Tesco White Lasagne Sauce is 85p. The FreeFrom makes gluten / milk free claim, contains coconut (expensive), and appears to be free from all 14 allergens. The ordinary one contains milk, mustard and makes no free from claims. Reason for more than double the cost? Yes, I think that could be reasonable. (Whether you'd wish to pick it, though, is another matter: compare the fat content of the two.)
These two echo the sense of what I picked up on social media, that some comparisons were fair and others perhaps weren't.
I thought the segment on the show was poor. It was superficial, under-researched, trivialising and made no effort to answer the question of why such foods were more dear, which might have helped public understanding of the realities of food allergies, and of coeliac disease (which wasn't mentioned). It could also have been an opportunity to cover prescription cuts, although granted that may not be within the programme's remit. "Use your gluten free eyes to read the gluten free label" it concluded, fatuously.
Has the coverage been fair to supermarkets?
They're such powerhouses that something like this is hardly going to damage or hurt them, but it can help keep them on their toes. I don't think they're necessarily taking the piss, and they're certainly not the only ones who arguably over-charge: I've been in this game long enough to have had my fill of handmade Himalayan-salted kale-scented gluten-free arnica petals bearing pricetags more typically associated with Tiffany's than Tesco's.
Things will improve, but consumers can help by wising-up on labelling issues - which are far more complicated than Supershoppers implied - by keeping their eyes peeled, shopping around (including spending longer in the non-free from aisles), and not being afraid to challenge manufacturers over their pricing. Even if this latest media coverage could have been much better, that it was covered was a positive, and it can't make matters worse, I wouldn't have thought. Make the most of Coeliac UK's food directory, which doesn't list only products found in the free-from aisle, by any means, and take advice from your dietitian too, who may be wise to local bargains and offers. Veteran freefromers and coeliacs will know all this, of course, but newbies need help negotiating the free-from maze. Give them a hand, if you can.
Labels: free from food, labelling, media / journalism, supermarkets