Don’t overpay in the free-from aisle – find hidden bargains instead

If you’re gluten-free, wheat-free or have coeliac disease you’ll know the cost of free-from food adds up, but if you know where to look in the same supermarket, you could make big savings without compromising on ingredients. This is the latest in our supermarket aisle secrets series – in the last couple of weeks, we’ve uncovered world foods discounts, and baby aisle bargains, and now we’re grappling with more…

We sampled items in the free-from aisles at five supermarkets – Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Waitrose – and found sauces, cereals, biscuits and stock cheaper elsewhere in the same supermarket that DON’T have any of the ingredients you may be looking to avoid.

Important health warning: ALWAYS read the label before buying anything risky. As we’re money, not food nutrition experts, we asked charity Coeliac UK and the Food Standards Agency regulator to help with our investigation and their responses below should give you added confidence to at least check other aisles, which is our key message. And just because it doesn’t shout ‘gluten-free’ doesn’t mean it isn’t safe. Coeliac UK says: “Where there’s no gluten in the ingredients we advise these can be included in a gluten-free diet.” See its full quote below.

Free-from aisles vs other aisles

Below we show you some of the top items we randomly selected at the five supermarkets that were either gluten or wheat-free. Most were cheaper away from the free-from aisles, but it’s not a universal rule, so always do your checks.

We made sure we compared branded items in the free-from aisle with the most similar branded items elsewhere where possible, and supermarket free-from own brands with the most similar supermarket own brands in another aisle on the same day to make it a fair comparison. Often, we even found products labelled as ‘free-from’ hidden in another aisle. Where not labelled gluten-free, we checked labels to ensure they did not contain gluten.

MSE Update Tue 19 Jun 2018: It’s worth noting we first published this blog in May 2017, so some of the prices in the table may now be inaccurate, but the principle of cheaper versions of the same product in different aisles still stands. 

The table below has the full results…

Product (and shop where we saw it)
 Free-from aisle1 Other aisle1
Porridge (Asda) £2.99 for 350g of Quaker Oats – labelled gluten-free £2.45 for 350g of Moma – labelled gluten-free
Brown sauce (Tesco) £1 for 450g (22p per 100g) – labelled gluten-free 89p for 480g (19p per 100g) – no gluten listed
Nairns oatcakes (Asda) £1.50 for 213g (70p per 100g) – labelled wheat-free 79p for 291g (27p per 100g) labelled wheat-free
Sweet chilli sauce (Sainsbury’s) £2.50 for 220ml (£1.14 per 100ml) for Sweet Mandarin – labelled gluten-free £2 for 380ml (53p per 100ml) for Blue Dragon – labelled gluten-free
Mayonnaise (Sainsbury’s) £1.50p for 280g (54p per 100g) for Chippa – labelled gluten-free £1.50 for 404g (37p per 100g) for Hellmann’s – no gluten listed
Ginger biscuits (Sainsbury’s) £1.30 for 150g (87p per 100g) – labelled wheat-free  £1.25 for 200g (63p per 100g) for Nairns – labelled wheat-free
Rice cakes (Waitrose) £2.25 for 112g (£2.01 per 100g) for Clearspring – labelled gluten-free  £1.50 for 130g (£1.15 per 100g) for Kallo – labelled gluten-free
Porridge (Tesco) £2.99 for 350g of Quaker Oats – labelled gluten-free £2.49 for 350g of Moma – labelled gluten-free
Noodles (Waitrose) £2 for 250g (80p per 100g) for Barenaked noodles – labelled gluten-free £1 for 200g (50p per 100g) for Thai Taste – labelled gluten-free
Stock powder (Sainsbury’s) £2 for 135g (£1.48 per 100g) for Knorr – labelled gluten-free £2 for 150g (£1.33 per 100g) for Marigold – labelled gluten-free
Chocolate rice cakes (Asda) 99p for 100g – labelled gluten-free 85p for 90g (94p per 100g) – no gluten listed
Oats (Morrisons) £2.50 for 500g (50p per 100g) – labelled gluten-free £3.50 for 1kg (35p per 100g) – labelled gluten-free
Ketchup (Morrisons) £2.50 for 315g (79p per 100g) for Chippa – labelled gluten-free 76p for 1kg (8p per 100g) – no gluten listed
¹Own brand unless stated.

We found one example where the item in the free-from aisle was cheaper than elsewhere in the same store. Gluten-free BBQ sauce 480g is 70p in the free-from aisle, or 99p for the same amount with no gluten listed in the ingredients or ‘may contain’ list in the sauces aisle.

What’s available will depend on where you live, because, although supermarkets almost always have a free-from section – even in some smaller local/express stores, usually, the larger the store you visit the bigger the free-from section is likely to be.

What the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Coeliac UK had to say

The FSA confirmed to us all food products sold by UK supermarkets – including items not in the free-from section – have to be clearly labelled with gluten and wheat info.

Coeliac UK, the national charity for people living gluten free or with the autoimmune condition coeliac disease, told us: “People on a gluten-free diet don’t only eat specialist gluten-free foods, their diets are made up of naturally gluten-free foods like fruit and vegetables, pulses, meat, fish and poultry, eggs, milk and cheese which are not labelled gluten-free and are safe to include on a gluten-free diet.

“There are also lots of foods that are not labelled gluten-free that people want to buy as part of their normal shop, like cooking sauces, ready meals and snacks. Where these do not contain gluten in the ingredients, and when they do not display a ‘may contain’ statement, we advise that these can be included in a gluten-free diet.”

If unsure, you can also contact the relevant supermarket to confirm ingredients in any of their own-brand products.

Does this work with dairy-free items?

We’ve focused on gluten and wheat as it’s more regulated and, while this principle may also work with dairy-free products, we’ve excluded it as the rules are ambiguous which can cause health issues if you get it wrong.

We’ve  similar ‘hacks’ for other aisles elsewhere in the supermarket, which we’ll be looking into in depth over the coming weeks – so follow our Twitter and sign up to our weekly email for more ways to save. You can also save on groceries in other aisles simply by ‘downshifting’ from branded goods to cheaper own-brand equivalents (see MSE’s Downshift Challenge) – but do take care to check the allergen information on the packaging. Also see our supermarket guide for more tips and tricks.