England's National Health Service—its publicly funded healthcare system—has bought into the gluten-free craze in a big way. Thanks to an antiquated system dating back to the 1960s when gluten-free food was actually hard to find, the NHS has been writing out prescriptions for food suitable for celiac sufferers.
But consider this new figure: last year, the NHS prescribed £116 million worth of gluten-free junk food, like cake mixes, biscuits, and pizza.
What's more, handling and shipping charges for these foods—which are oddly obtained through pharmacies—are sky high, often much higher than the price of the food itself. The Daily Mail reports that according to one pharmacist in the UK, the "NHS was paying £25.50 for the prescription of a baguette – £3.50 for the loaf and £22 for handling." That's almost a $40 baguette.
So if you think the health care system in the US is crazy, just remember that, yes, in the UK you can get a prescription for a baguette. A very expensive baguette. And as we've previously discussed, gluten-free baked goods aren't any better for you than their traditional counterparts.
Brits are justifiably alarmed. Fayyaz Chaudhri of Cumbria said, "It should be stopped. It's irresponsible and it's leading to an obesity epidemic. There's plenty of gluten-free products people can buy in shops, and many foods such as fruit are naturally gluten-free anyway."
In addition to the cost to the government, the health value of these gluten-free products is in serious question. According to the Health and Social Care Information Centre in the UK, 211,200 prescriptions were written for gluten-free or low-protein food in 2014. This includes 102,700 prescriptions for gluten-free pizza dough, 6,900 scrips for gluten-free cake mixes, and 1,304 ciabatta rolls sans gluten.
One pharmacy employee told the Daily Mail, "It's quite extraordinary what is going on with the prescriptions. Bread is not a medicine, it's a food—if people want it, they can buy it. Then you hear that patients are being denied cancer drugs."
Plus, some people seem to be taking advantage of the questionable system. The Daily Mail reports allegations of one patient bulk ordering NHS-subsidized gluten-free flour for an online cake business.
(Somebody should totally make a Drugstore Cowboy-style show called License to Cake. A struggling gluten-free fiend will accidentally get his hands on tons of these unused prescription pads and starts an underground bakeshop. Anyone?)
Anyway, a spokesman for the Department of Health told The Telegraph,"At a time when NHS budgets are tight and the latest treatments are expensive, we need to get our priorities right.The NHS offers world-leading care, but it wasn't founded to prescribe chocolate biscuits and cakes—gluten-free or otherwise."
Of course, everyone acknowledges that people with celiac disease, a tiny percentage of the population (like 1 percent), do need to eat gluten-free. But as we have pointed out before, the area of gluten sensitivity is a murky one indeed. Gluten-free eating has become a trend extending far beyond this miniscule fraction of the population, and may be exacerbating the NHS fiasco.
And, of course, over the last few decades, gluten-free food has become widely available in supermarkets both in the US and the UK, so the value of gluten-free food by prescription is dubious at best. Especially given the calorie-filled nature of so many of the NHS-subsidized "prescriptions" that have recently come to light.
With around 25 percent of the British public deemed overweight—and only 1 percent classified as having celiac disease—the NHS has some 'splaining to do.
In the meantime, if you happen to find yourself in England and have a hankering for chocolate biscotti or a custard cream, head to the local pharmacy. You may be able to still get the British government to satisfy your gluten-free dreams.