Medical doctor Amy Sevao urges the food manufacturing industry to reduce the costs of free-from and vegan products to better support people with food allergies.
A recent survey, Cost and Pay Size Disrepencies between Mainstream and Free-from Allergen Products, led by Dr Sevao, found New Zealanders living with food allergies having to pay 35 per cent more for free-from and vegan food products.
“What we looked at was a sample of food products available in supermarkets which had either a gluten-free, dairy or egg-free, or vegan alternative product marketed by the same manufacturer under the same brand," Sevao says.
“The data showed consumers pay an average of 35 per cent more for a free-from food product but this could be up to 122 per cent higher in some cases.”
Dr Sevao says the prevalence of severe food allergies in New Zealand has increased significantly in recent years. Research shows the rate of hospital admissions for severe food allergies in Pasifika and Māori has tripled over the past decade.
“The reasons behind this could be attributable to genetics, dietary food patterns or environmental factors. However, it is particularly concerning to see the sharp rise in the number of Pasifika patients admitted to hospital with food-induced anaphylaxis in recent years.”
She says the implications for this long-term trend are especially concerning for those on a tight budget who will have limited choices of foods they can potentially eat.
“In particular, the ability to purchase allergen-free foods is at risk for many families as New Zealand grapples with the cost-of-living crisis,” she says.
“Already these people cannot go and find a substitute. They have to eat these products. So if you have a much higher price point, then you’re already decreasing their disposal income that might lead to food insecurity and is very stressful for the whānau.”
She says the reason why the costs for vegan and free-from products are higher could be because they are more challenging to manufacture.
"But in saying that, I feel it is important still to not pass all of those increases in price to the consumer because unfortunately, this group of consumers is a captive audience. They have no other choice but to buy these products.”
Dr Sevao’s survey found packaging sizes of free-from products were also 40 per cent smaller than their counterparts, which suggests this group of consumers may need to be vigilant when calculating the value for money of their purchases.