A lot of confusion surrounds celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and wheat allergies, including the foods that aggravate these conditions. Not many people understand that wheat and gluten are not the same thing, or that there’s no such thing as a gluten allergy. Below is a quick wheat and gluten overview to help clear up some of the confusion.
What Is Wheat-Free?
Products labeled wheat-free are just that—they do not contain any wheat. Wheat is a popular grain that’s usually ground into flour and used to make breads, thicken soups and brewed into beer. For those who cannot eat wheat, wheat-free alternatives to these foods and drinks are the only option.
Problems with Wheat
The only condition where just wheat is an issue is a wheat allergy. Like other food allergies, wheat allergies are most common in children and in some cases can be life-threatening. While most children manage to outgrow their wheat allergy, there is no cure, and the only way to manage this food allergy is through strict avoidance of anything containing wheat or that may have come in contact with wheat.
It might seem like just about everything contains wheat, from tasty baked goods to sauces and soups. However, plenty of alternatives exist, including grains such as rye, barley and oats. Also, anything labeled “gluten-free” is also free of wheat, even if it isn’t labeled.
What Is Gluten-Free?
The term gluten-free is often used interchangeably with wheat-free, but this is inaccurate. Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, but it is also found in barley, rye, spelt and sometimes oats (due to cross-contamination). Barley and rye are often used as wheat substitutes and are safe for people with wheat allergies to consume, but not for people with gluten sensitivities. This is why the term “wheat free” does not necessarily mean “gluten free.” Problems with Gluten There is no such thing as an allergy to gluten, but there are a couple of health conditions that require avoidance of this protein:
- Celiac disease: This autoimmune disorder is triggered by gluten, which causes the surface of the small intestine to get badly damaged, resulting in malabsorption of nutrients and often severe abdominal pain. If left unidentified and untreated, celiac disease can cause a wide range of health problems, from anxiety to cancer. An incurable condition, celiac disease affects an estimated 1 in 133 Americans, and can only be managed by removing all traces of gluten from the diet.
- Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: A condition that isn’t yet fully understood, non-celiac gluten sensitivity causes symptoms similar to celiac disease, but does not involve an immune response, and does not cause intestinal damage. The most common symptoms include headache, gastrointestinal upset and drowsiness. The underlying cause of gluten sensitivity has yet to be identified, but scientists estimate that it may affect as many as 18 million Americans.
A gluten-free diet is more restricted than a wheat-free diet, but it is still possible to find gluten-free baked goods and other foods. Quinoa, rice, gluten-free oats and corn are common alternatives, and thanks to the gluten-free diet’s popularity recently, it is now possible to find a wide variety of safe packaged foods. Again, it’s crucial to remember that “wheat-free” does not necessarily mean “gluten-free.” Whether you suffer from a wheat allergy, gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, it is important to read all labels and identify the ingredients that could contain wheat or gluten. Soy sauce, malt and thickeners often contain wheat flour and should be avoided unless the packaging specifies that they’re gluten– and/or wheat-free. In addition, it’s a good idea to ask about the food served at restaurants, especially in the case of celiac disease and wheat allergies, which can be aggravated by even trace amounts of wheat or gluten. Perhaps most importantly, it is also crucial to understand the difference between wheat-free and gluten-free foods.