The cost of being food sensitive - Michelle Berriedale Johnson reports

Anyone who has had dealings with food sensitivity – be it an allergy, an intolerance or coeliac disease – will know that it is expensive. Expensive in food costs, expensive in time costs, expensive in terms of your quality of life. But how expensive? And if it is significantly more expensive than living without a food sensitivity, should we be looking at food sensitivity as a recognised disability for which you can claim benefits?

This is not an entirely new idea as for many years coeliacs were able to get free prescriptions for a wide range of gluten free foods (now reduced to just bread and mixes). Although the thinking then had less to do with disability than ensuring that coeliacs ate gluten free food thus preventing their condition deteriorating and thereby costing the health service more in terms of medical support.

But to pursue any of these paths one needs data – and specifically data in terms of costs. So recent Food Standards Agency funded research published in December is welcome. Not that any such data is ever going to be that accurate – research methods rely on data recall while variations in the severity of the condition and the financial circumstances of those involved are always going to make averaged out costs look questionable to many. But you have to start somewhere.

The research projects The FSA research covered two specific areas – the actual costs of living with a food sensitivity both in terms of food and of time lost/spent coping with it – and an estimate of how much people would pay to get rid of that sensitivity.

Actual costs

This study showed that households with food sensitivities spent 12 – 27% more on food than those without. Or, to look at it a different way – for every £1 spent on groceries –

  • A household with a food allergy spends an additional 14p
  • A household with Coeliac disease spends an additional 12p
  • A household with a food intolerance spends an additional 16p

Food aside, households with food sensitivity issues:

  • Spend £15.22 on monthly medical costs, to manage the symptoms of the condition
  • Lose approximate 3 paid workdays and 4 unpaid days per year, due to the condition
  • Spend 40.37 days per year on food sensitivity-related activities including researching, shopping for suitable items and discussing the condition

Within those three groups, food allergy is the most expensive to manage – medical costs related to food allergy being 1.6 to 2.5 times more costly. It is also 11% more expensive to eat out or have a takeway if you are food allergic than if you are intolerant or have CD.

And these figures do not take into account the social or psychological fall out from living with a food sensitivity in terms of anxiety, depression and social exclusion, all of which may result in further support costs, medical and other.

How much would you pay not to have a food sensitivity?

This was a rather more ambitious project on a subject that is a great deal harder to evaluate. The seriousness of the condition (is it life threatening on a daily basis or does eating the wrong food just make you feel ill), the age and nature of the persons concerned (are they a young child or an adult? are they anxious and frightened by the condition or are they relatively relaxed about it), not to mention the household’s financial circumstances would all be very significant factors in how much that household was prepared to pay to be free of the sensitivity.

So the figures the researchers came up with can really be little more than a stab in the dark. Whereas those on actual food costs seem very useful, I do wonder what practical use these findings will be. I also find them quite surprising.

My assumption had been that someone with a food allergy (a serious food allergy at least) would pay more to get rid of it than someone with Coeliac disease. And, given the levels of stress involved in having a child with a serious food allergy, I would have thought that parents would be prepared to pay more than £2766 (less than the cost of a family holiday) to relieve themselves of that 24/7 anxiety. However, for what they are worth, here are the key findings. For more details check out the research report.

  • Adults with a food allergy would pay £1064 per year not to have that allergy
  • Adults with coeliac disease would pay £1342 per year not to have CD
  • Adults with food intolerances would pay £540 a year not to have that intolerance.

The average money per year that parents would pay to remove all the symptoms and limitations of their children’s food allergy was:

  • £2766 for a child with a food allergy
  • More than £1600 for a child with coeliac disease and food intolerance

January 2023


More articles on the management and treatment of food allergy and intolerance

Back to top