Are you or your child managing a wheat allergy? If so, you are not alone. Studies show that about 0.4% of children in the U.S. have a wheat allergy. However, what is a wheat allergy and how is it different from a gluten intolerance or even celiac disease? With so much jargon on the internet and social media, it can be difficult to navigate food allergies. We’re here to help! Keep reading to learn more about wheat allergies and how you can overcome them.
What is Wheat?
Wheat is a cereal crop that today is often used as the foundational element in baked goods or as a thickening agent in other foods. The domestication of wheat is thought to have occurred nearly 10,000 years ago. Wheat is adaptable to many climates and considered to be high yielding. Many cuisines across the world incorporate wheat into their foods, making it challenging for those who cannot tolerate wheat. Durum wheat is commonly used in regional foods such as pasta, while common wheat is usually milled into flour and used for bread, cookies, cakes, and pasta. More ancient varieties of wheat like spelt are becoming more popular due to their higher protein content and overall nutritional value compared to today’s more domesticated wheat.
Common Sources of Wheat
Wheat is a popular ingredient worldwide. In the United States, wheat is considered to be one of the top nine most common allergens. For FDA-regulated food products, wheat is required to be labeled clearly for consumers. However, for non-FDA-regulated products, wheat may not be listed. If you have a wheat allergy, look out for the following items that signal wheat:
- Bread and bread crumbs
- Cakes, cookies
- Cereal extract
- Cracker meal
- Flour (enriched, graham, high-gluten, high-protein, whole-wheat)
- Matzoh, matzoh meal
- Vital gluten
- Wheat berries, bran, germ, gluten, grass, malt, sprouted, starch
You may also find wheat in more unexpected places like:
- Pet food and pet treats
- Soy sauce
- Vegetable starch
If you have a wheat allergy, reading labels and verifying something is wheat free is essential to staying safe. Read every label carefully, even if you have already had a product before, as labels can change.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat and other grains such as barley and rye. It acts as a binding agent and has stretchy properties that help bread rise, and pizza crust stretch without breaking. With the rise in awareness of gluten intolerances and diseases, gluten-free alternatives are becoming more readily available to consumers. Gluten-free options are often suitable alternatives for those who have wheat allergies as well.
Baking/ Cooking Wheat and Gluten Free
Cooking and baking without gluten can be a learning curve for those who are new to it. Replacing wheat flour and mimicking gluten properties requires a mixture of several different flour and starch alternatives. Common wheat flour substitutes include rice flour, almond flour, oat flour, and cassava flour. To create a good blend, you may also need starches like tapioca and potato starch. Xanthan Gum is commonly found in gluten-free items as a binding agent. You can buy 1:1 gluten-free flour mixes that have a ready-made blend of gluten-free flour, or you can create your own gluten-free blend from scratch.
Differences Between Wheat Allergy, Celiac, and Gluten Sensitivity
When someone has a wheat allergy, they often have an IgE-mediated immune system response to the proteins specific to wheat. Exposure to wheat can be life-threatening. If one or more systems in the body are affected, the reaction is considered anaphylactic – a medical emergency. An epinephrine autoinjector should be used, and the patient should seek medical attention right away. Allergic symptoms may include:
- Itching mouth, nose, throat, and skin
- Hives or rashes
- Trouble breathing or wheezing
- Confusion or dizziness
- Sense of doom
- Drop in blood pressure
With symptoms similar to celiac disease, a wheat allergy can be difficult to pin down. Various allergy testing (skin prick, blood, etc.) can help identify an allergy to wheat.
About 1 in 100 people are estimated to have celiac disease worldwide, though it is believed that only 30% are properly diagnosed. Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease that results in the body attacking the small intestine when exposed to gluten. The villi, described as “finger-like projections” found in the small intestine to aid in nutrition adsorption, are often left damaged from the immune attacks on the small intestines. This can disrupt the body’s ability to absorb the nutrients that it needs.
While there are reported to be over 200 symptoms of celiac disease, everyone’s body can be a little different. Similar to a food allergy, even a trace amount of exposure can cause problems for someone with Celiac disease. Possible symptoms of celiac disease may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Bloating and gas
- Depression and anxiety
- Migraine or headache
For a more detailed list of symptoms related to celiac disease, click here. Blood testing is necessary to properly diagnose or rule out celiac disease. Consult with your primary care provider if you suspect you may have celiac disease.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS)
It is possible to have sensitivity to gluten without having true celiac disease. Those who experience discomfort due to gluten, but do not test as having celiac disease may have NCGS. Those with Celiac and NCGS may have very similar symptoms. However, while food allergies and celiac disease both involve immune system responses, NCGS is a digestive disorder and may also be triggered by something else found in the grains that contain gluten rather than gluten itself.
Treatment Options for Wheat Allergy
Here at the Food Allergy Institute, we understand that navigating severe or anaphylactic food allergies can be overwhelming and stressful. However, hope exists! Through the Tolerance Induction Program (TIP), we treat all kinds of food allergies, including wheat allergies. With individualized treatment plans, patients with a wheat allergy can achieve food freedom, or the ability to eat any amount of wheat with no fear of reaction.