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Miriam Pearl Headshot

Why Exactly Is Gluten-Free So Expensive?

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There is a recent story that was in the news that caused me to stop in my tracks and scratch my head.
It was about a woman who was upset because a restaurant she went to charged $1 more for requesting allergy-friendly food. She was not only surprised, the article says, but offended.

Well, I have a different point of view and let it be known that if I know a restaurant has measures in place to serve me uncontaminated ready-made food that won't make my kids' sick.....I am all in. CHARGE ME and yes, thank you for me giving me a break from having to cook!

Eating out is a luxury. Eating out gluten-free is a luxury on top of a luxury! It's a real treat to go to a restaurant, but people who have celiac or allergies don't have many options where they feel eating is safe.

Gluten-free is more expensive and yet people don't understand why that is. I want them to know that it is not because they can get away with it or because they want to take advantage of the less fortunate.

Paying a dollar more to ensure safety for #‎allergies‬ in a restaurant is totally welcomed by me and here are 3 valid reasons breads and other gluten-free baked goods are so expensive:

Manufacturer's Point-of-view: Breads made with wheat are much simpler to bake and have fewer ingredients. In gluten-free bread, several flours need to be weighed and combined to simulate wheat flour. The cost of these flours is much more than the cost of making wheat breads and the labour to mix them is even more costly.

Wheat bread has standard machinery to accommodate it in production. The dough made from wheat has a great hand-feel, elasticity and it is easy to manipulate. When it goes into the machinery, it doesn't stick to it and can be mass-produced with ease and then cleaned at anytime. This involves less labour, higher volumes and lower costs for mass bread production.

When making gluten-free bread the dough is sticky similar to the texture of toothpaste and cannot be manipulated. The dough in the machinery is difficult to clean and if left unattended for over a half hour, it hardens making it extremely tough to wash. Much hand manipulation needs to be done before and after dough is deposited. All of this takes time and as the saying goes; time is money making labour the number one high cost in production.

In order for gluten-free breads to mimic the lightweight airiness of wheat bread they generally contain some starch. Without the starch content the flours are very heavy and dense. Sugar is used to activate yeast but can also make the dough rise too quickly. In addition to those factors, the depositor for mass production can further complicate the process and activate bubbles that create pockets in the bread causing holes. If you are used to buying gluten-free bread in your supermarket, I am sure you have seen breads with these holes. Manufacturers must check for these holes (which adds more labour again!) and they can lose quite a number of breads in production which raises the cost once more!

Restaurant Point-of-view: A sit down restaurant is in the service business, meaning, they are there to make you feel welcome and valued, cater to your needs, serve your meal in a timely fashion and provide friendly service. Some do this better than others, but there is a limit even to the best. Everything outside of that norm is extra. We already explained why the bread costs more to make, and now this expense is passed to the restaurant. This is the reason why even when there is a gluten-free menu added to main menu, a bread basket is not often given in place of the standard.
Moreover, restaurants are not equipped to handle patrons with allergies and intolerances. For restaurants to handle people with very specific food requirements such as providing gluten-free options or allergen replacements, the owner/manager has to educate and train their staff. Policies and procedures need to be in place, and waiters need to carry them through at service. Training costs money and if you are in the restaurant business, you may know that with staffing there are frequent changes. Chefs also need extra preparation space, separate toasters, pots for separate pasta and this too comes at an additional cost to the restaurant. It is far beyond what most restaurants can bake into the prices of their regular menu.

If you are lucky to find a restaurant that will go the extra mile for you, you have a friend for life.

From a consumer's Point-of-view, I am a mom with kids with celiac. Going out to eat is a bigger treat for me that it is for them. It means the onus of cooking and baking for this one meal is not on me!!! Otherwise, it is all on my shoulders; 100% of the time. Even when we do go out to eat in most restaurants, we bring our own bread for the basket so we can feel the dining experience. I already paid more for the buns at the grocery store because it's gluten-free, so what is the difference if the restaurant charges me instead? We order naturally gluten-free foods such as chicken, vegetables and rice all plain without the gravies, breading or sauces. Sometimes it is good and other times we're just happy to be out and served.

So if a restaurant's policy is to honour and serve their gluten-free patrons by going the extra mile and charging me an extra dollar or two - let me say it again I'M ALL IN! Bread basket, seasoned and delicious food that is safe to eat and with great attention to avoid allergens... I am very grateful to any restauranteur that will do that for me and my family.

I'm paying to sit and relax. To have someone else cook for me! To not clean my kitchen. To actually eat at the same time with my kids. What's that worth? Priceless!

If every restaurant said they couldn't accommodate us where would we all eat? The woman in the news story was so angry about the surcharge that she filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission. This kind of backlash has the potential to ruin it for all of us who will gladly pay the extra buck for peace of mind and safe-eating.

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