When the boss, Emily Brown, said the grocery price comparison chart needed to be updated, I decided to volunteer. In 2016 and 2019, we published price comparison charts, but as the variety of foods we offer our FEI Family Members grows, our chart needs to reflect that.

When it was laid out to me during that meeting, I thought this task would be a piece of cake. Go to the store, find the items, write down the prices. How hard could that be, especially since I already know how to read labels? You see, I was born with a severe food allergy to peanuts, and in adulthood have developed additional allergies to tree nuts and chickpeas. Because of my own allergies, I am very used to reading labels in the store and pride myself on how quickly I can determine whether or not an item is safe for me to eat.

But, let me tell you, I was not prepared for this shopping experience. 

Grocery shopping with multiple food allergies is easier said than done.

To make the quest more enjoyable, I recruited my friend, Arden, to join me. She knew of my allergies and has cooked many a meal with me where we read the ingredient labels in-depth together. We had never gone grocery shopping together before, so I thought this could be a fun learning experience for her, as well as a fun friendship opportunity for me. (I like running errands with friends.) 

If you would like to participate in a scavenger hunt like I did, check out this version for in-store shopping and this version for online shopping.

THE SHOPPING TRIP

Once Arden and I arrived at the store, we went right for the cracker aisle. The gluten-free section was surprisingly easy to find as it was right at the front. But that is where the ease stopped. After looking at the aisle full of crackers, I realized this would be much harder than I anticipated. 

In order to get an accurate representation of the comparison between regular crackers and free-from crackers, you have to factor in the amount of crackers in the box and the weight of the contents. But everything comes in different shapes and sizes! And what about the items that were on sale just for this week but usually cost something different? It was overwhelming. How was I going to do this?

It was a good thing I brought Arden along. (She is a science teacher, so data collection is her thing.) She suggested taking the price per ounce of each product, instead of the overall price on the tag. That would help account for actual price differences of the contents, leaving out the variance in sizing, thereby giving us the most accurate results. (See? It is good to bring friends on errands, you never know when you might need them!)

However, I would like to take a moment to address the difference in sizing. If you want to buy a family size box of crackers or bag of pasta, you can do that quite cost effectively. It is often in the consumer’s best interest to buy in bulk as it is cheaper in the long run. But the same cannot be said for free-from grocery items.

The price of one box of crackers may be similar if it has gluten in it or not, but you DO NOT get the same amount of substance. There often is no family size option of gluten-free or allergen-free items. Smaller portions mean lower prices which look good on the shelf next to the other items, but translates into less food for the consumer.

DATA COLLECTION

Once we figured out what data we were collecting, it went much smoother. We walked up and down the aisles, finding the price per ounce amounts for all the items on my list: baking mixes, cookies, milk, pasta, peanut butter. Once we got to gluten-free bread though, we ran into some more trouble.

We were in the bread aisle, naturally, and found dozens and dozens of glutenous loaves, but not a single gluten-free option. I was in disbelief. There is no way that there was no gluten-free bread at my local supermarket; they had gluten-free crackers, so there HAD to be gluten-free bread.

Now I am sure that many of you reading this know exactly where gluten-free bread is located in a grocery store, but neither my friend nor I live a gluten-free diet, so we had no idea where to look. After a bout of brainstorming, we finally found it: in the freezer. If you were a first time gluten-free shopper like Arden and me, it takes awhile to locate without guidance.

We were reaching the end of our list, but still had not found an egg replacer. We went to the egg section, obviously, and looked on the top corner shelf (the placement where all the free-from products had been located so far in this supermarket). There were pint-sized cartons of egg-whites, but nothing that was egg free.

We did some more brainstorming but were at a loss. It was the last item on the list and we simply could not find it, and by that point, we had been in the store for at least an hour and a half. It was dinnertime, and we all know how dangerous it is to be in a grocery store when you are hungry.  

ONLINE SHOPPING

Once I got back home, I went online to my local supermarket’s website, to see if I could find the item that I missed. I typed “egg replacer” into the search bar. Only one item came up: Bob’s Red Mill Egg Replacer, located in Aisle 5 with the baking mixes.

In retrospect, I suppose this is logical. If you cannot eat eggs, you aren’t going to try to fry up or boil an egg replacement; you will really only need it for replacing eggs in a baking recipe, so go to the baking aisle. But, that does not account for the reality that there is only one option. Also, thinking back on it now, I remember learning from one of my coworkers that applesauce can work as an egg replacer in recipes. But how would you know that unless you have a coworker who regularly works in food-allergic shopping? You won’t find that out at the grocery store, that is for sure!

WHAT I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT SHOPPING WITH MULTIPLE ALLERGIES

  1. It is time consuming, you can easily spend hours at the grocery store.
  2. The grocery store is confusing for a first time shopper, as you don’t know where free-from items are located.
  3. It is EXPENSIVE, as you can see from the data.
  4. The more allergens you have to avoid, the more difficult it is to find items, and the more expensive the price tag.
  5. Shopping is easier with a friend, especially one with patience and determination to find you the foods you need. (Thanks, Arden!)

THE DATA

The only items with less than a 100% increase in price are the milk substitutes. Even then, NOTHING is cheaper or equivalent to even the pricey name brand items. This chart shows the real cost of a food allergy and/or celiac disease diagnosis. In order to get the free-from foods their bodies require, they have to shell out significantly more money at the grocery store. (Not to mention that government assistance programs such as WIC and SNAP rarely cover the items needed.

Remember, the only treatment for these conditions is strict allergen and/or gluten avoidance. Epinephrine auto-injectors are a prescribed medication, but are only to be used in emergencies, making free-from food the main medicine. 

FOOD IS MEDICINE 

Food Equality Initiative subsidizes this medicine, making it accessible for all who need it. But, we cannot do it alone. Click here to learn about our waitlist and what you can do to make a difference in your community.

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