Fashionable inequality?

Gluten free- fashion or fundamental?

Modern life in developed societies is a world away from the lives our recent ancestors lived. Better sanitation, advances in farming and food supply, the cumulative effects of public health interventions over the years, and huge advances in medical knowledge and technology have also shifted the landscape of disease.

As a society, our preoccupation is now with controlling potential illness, improving wellbeing, managing risk factors, and trying to improve our health through individual actions.  Pick up any newspaper on a weekend, and you will find sections discussing the latest discovery of a link between a foodstuff and cancer, another reason to do this, or that.  The open availability of medical information is a great advance, that allows patients a greater degree of control over their illnesses, and a greater degree of autonomy in the management of long term conditions.  Shared decision making must be the future model of the medical consultation.

However, alongside the valid, sensible information, there are many health concerns that achieve wide publicity that can generate anxiety amongst the worried well, and can lead to profound changes in the way people live their lives.  Often the roots of these fears are in the translation of medical advice about well described pathologies into lifestyle choices to address concerns that are less well established, but popularised through mainstream media.

The impact of these choices is mainly on the individual, but a recent paper in the PMJ about the availability and cost of gluten free (GF) food in supermarkets, and shops in Sheffield provoked the thought that these choices may have a wider impact in our modern, marketised society.

The paper from explores the availability and pricing of gluten free products in the city of Sheffield.  The authors examined  a number of variables, and examined deprivation as part of their analyses.

On the price and availability of gluten free food – there were striking findings.  The price difference between ‘normal’ and GF foods were large – with GF foods costing, on average 4.1 times more. In the case of bread, the cost was ~7.6 times higher per 100g for GF than a non-GF alternative.  Combined with cost was the issue of availability – where budget supermarkets and corner shops did not stock any GF foods at all – the greatest choice being within regular, large supermarkets.

As a slight aside, I found it interesting that shops in Sheffield do not seem to follow the ‘rules’ of deprivation – in that ‘quality’ shops had no significant difference in deprivation score when compared with ‘budget’ shops.  This point may be a quirk of the analysis used (postcodes rather than wards), or that in Sheffield as in many other cities, areas of deprivation and affluence co-exist in close proximity, rather than in geographically discrete ghettoes.

The authors have noted a number of factors that could contribute to their findings regarding the maintenance of hight prices for gluten free foodstuffs, and how this might negatively impact on patients with coeliac disease who are from lower socioeconomic groups.  However,  their paper made me think about the additional impact of consumer choice, and market forces within the system they examined.  Wheat free, and gluten free diets are often advocated to improve general wellbeing, and food intolerances in general are commonly held to be responsible for a number of non-specific symptoms.

Gluten free diets are both fashionable, and medically necessary.  My feeling is that the increasing availability of gluten free foods in supermarkets is testament to the wider popularity of gluten free food rather than the exploitation of an increasingly prevalent medical condition to create a market.  The reported incidence of coeliac disease is around 1% – although it is predicted that only a quarter of patients with the disease have been formally diagnosed.  Such a small segment of the population is unlikely to be able to sustain a £0.5 billion market in the UK alone.

The popularity of a (costly) gluten free diet amongst people who have not been diagnosed with coeliac disease is therefore likely to be both expanding the selection of available GF foodstuffs, but also keeping prices high. When GF foods are also restricted by market forces to shops where patients with coeliac disease and a lower disposable income are unlikely to frequent – we see that the popularisation of health concerns, and a widespread adoption of a dietary choice by those privileged to afford it may have negative consequences for patients with a pathology which demands the very same diet.

This is, of course, all speculation, and further examination of the provision, availability and consumption of GF foods would be welcome.  In particular, my knowledge of what prescribed gluten free foods are available is minimal – so I’m not sure how this plays into my argument.

However, as our society seems to be ever more obsessed with avoiding risks to health (although strangely resistant to simple, effective measures like increased physical activity) I wonder how many more areas it may be possible to observe where a lifestyle choice appears to exacerbate a health inequality for those with a formally diagnosed condition.