Free-from food is increasingly unaffordable in the UK, experts warn

Patients with food allergies and health conditions that affect the digestive system are increasingly unable to buy supermarkets free from products, which leave them with painful symptoms or permanent damage, experts warn.

Around 2.3 million people in the UK have either a food allergy or intolerance, or celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that leaves people unable to eat gluten.

To stay well, many have to buy free from food, which is more expensive than other produce. A report by the Food Standards Agency in 2022 calculated that adults with food allergies, intolerances or celiac disease already spend up to 27% more on food than those without food hypersensitivities.

In some areas, patients can get help with medical diet costs. Celiac patients in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are at lower risk of long-term health complications because they can access gluten-free bread, pasta and flour.

But the cost of living crisis has made it more difficult, especially for people in England, to buy free from food. In England, of 42 integrated care boards, around a third no longer offer any gluten-free food on prescription, after NHS England said commissioners were no longer obliged to.

Celiac UK’s latest figures show that gluten-free staples are on average 2.5 times more expensive than non-gluten-free products. A typical loaf of gluten-free bread is 4.4 times more expensive, while the cheapest gluten-free bread is six times more expensive than their gluten-containing equivalents.

Similarly, the cheapest oat milk usually costs 1.30 to 1.40 per liter, more than double the average price of cow’s milk.

Dr Kate Evans, a consultant gastroenterologist at the Royal Berkshire NHS foundation trust, said last year she saw some patients with celiac disease not sticking to their gluten-free diet because it was too expensive.

Patients are referred back because of persistent symptoms such as abdominal pain, weight loss and diarrhea, he said. Evans says tests show it’s because they’re not following a gluten-free diet.

That’s when it turns out they’re eating normal bread because they can’t afford gluten free. They say they eat gluten because there is no alternative.

This can have serious long-term health consequences. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition for which the only treatment is a lifelong strict gluten-free diet. Coeliacs who eat gluten are more likely to get osteoporosis and osteopenia, which puts them at a higher risk of fracture and also leads to inflammation of the small intestine and ulceration that can cause cancer.

Prof David Sanders, a consultant gastroenterologist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS foundation trust, said patients were not always aware of the risks, especially those without significant symptoms. They don’t think about what will happen in the long run. Only now they think of living.

Dr Gerry Robbins, a consultant gastroenterologist at York and Scarborough Teaching Hospitals NHS foundation trust, said the impact of unaffordable gluten-free food was not yet fully felt in the NHS. I think there is a larger group of these patients coming on the horizon in the next two to five years.

The president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Dr Camilla Kingdon, said that for children with celiac disease, food intolerance or allergy, having access to appropriate free-from foods is essential for their development. -development.

However, pediatricians are already seeing children and their families rationing or running out of much-needed free alternatives. Without these foods, children can develop gastrointestinal problems, often become unwell and are more at risk of mental health problems.

It is absolutely wrong that children from lower income families are put at such a disadvantage in terms of their health and well-being. If we are to truly manage child health, we must first address child poverty and food insecurity.

Amena Warner, head of clinical services at Allergy UK, says children with cow’s milk allergy whose families cannot afford alternatives such as oat or soy products may have other health problems.

Because these products tend to be fortified to be as nutritionally compatible as the food they replace, eliminating them from a child’s diet can have long-term health implications for the child’s development. a child, such as a higher risk of eczema, vitamin and mineral deficiency. , Warner said.

Sanders said the fact that the gluten-free diet is no longer available to many on prescription shows a level of inertia and nihilism in the medical community. A gluten-free diet is the only treatment for celiac disease. If it’s type 1 diabetes, another autoimmune disease, we don’t ask patients to buy their own insulin.

Tristan Humphreys, head of advocacy at Celiac UK, said: It is wrong that for so many people with celiac disease living in England, access to such a lifeline is denied. Not because of necessity or means but just an accident of geography.

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