Almost half of Northern Ireland consumers with food allergies and intolerances had to go without free-from products due to cost and availability

New research published on 20 July 2023 by the Consumer Council has revealed that people with food allergies and intolerances (food hypersensitivities) are impacted by high costs and lack of availability when buying free-from food and drinks.

We surveyed 1,000 consumers across Northern Ireland and held in-depth interviews with those working in the health sector, consumers with a hypersensitivity and those who buy free from products for lifestyle and health reasons, or due to environmental concerns.

Key findings:

  • Almost a third (30%) of consumers who purchase free-from food and drinks, do so because they or a family member has a food hypersensitivity.
  • Almost half (47%) of this group had experience of going without free-from food or drink products in the preceding 12 months.  
  • Four in 10 (42%) of these consumers had to go without because an item was too expensive, in comparison to almost a third (32%) of those buying free-from products for other reasons. 
  • Two-thirds (62%) of consumers with food hypersensitivity had to go without free-from products because they were unavailable in store.

In our in-depth discussions with consumers:

  • Consumers buying for reasons of food hypersensitivity spoke of having to budget to buy free-from food and drinks, whilst others compensated by spending less on ‘standard’ or non-essential items like treats.
  • Value for money also came into question, with research participants pointing out that free-from pack sizes are often smaller, meaning they need to buy them in greater quantity, or more frequently, and at a price that is often higher than the ‘standard’ equivalent.
  • Research participants not only discussed the impact that high costs and availability can have on their finances, but also their health and emotional well-being.

Philippa McKeown-Brown, Head of Food Policy and Emerging Markets at the Consumer Council added:

“Consumers’ concerns about rising food prices and lack of availability are a recurring theme in the research we’ve undertaken in the last 18 months. We know from our latest Northern Ireland Household Expenditure Tracker this is particularly the case for low-income households who spend a greater proportion of their basic spend on food (20%) than higher earners (14%). For these consumers, spend on food is only fractionally lower than the combined costs of housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels (20.2% versus 20.8%).

“In response to cost of living pressures, consumers are changing how they shop and what they buy. However, if your health, or the health of a loved one depends on buying only certain products, you are less able to shop around for a cheaper alternative. We are sharing these findings and recommendations to raise awareness on an issue which affects almost a third of Northern Ireland consumers”.

Katie Hunter, Public Health Dietitian from the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, and member of the British Dietetic Association, who took part in the research commented there can be serious ramifications on a person’s dietary health if they are prevented from purchasing free-from foods.

Katie explained in these cases, people can face a stark choice: “Either they will make a decision to eat foods they have an intolerance to which will cause ill health, or they could opt to leave out large parts of their diet.”

Christin Martin is from Belfast and her three-year-old daughter Lucy has multiple food allergies. Her experiences echo the findings from the research:

“The price of our food bill is scary. We are paying well over double for what other people are paying for just your basics such as bread and milk and there is a such limited variety in the shops, even in the free-from section.

“Lucy has to drink oat milk which has gone up to £2.20 a litre; our bread is £2.50 - £3 for a small loaf and add into the mix a fussy typical toddler, and it is very difficult. There is also the issue with availability; it is a complete roulette as to what is going to be available in the shops so I have to do multiple shops in multiple places each week. As a parent, the whole situation is very overwhelming and all-consuming.”

Read our full research report here.


  • Food