Currently, wheat is America’s main grain product. Approximately 75 percent of all grain products made in the United States are made from wheat flour. More prepackaged food products contain wheat than do not. However, more than 4 million people, mostly children, suffer from gluten intolerance, Celiac Disease or a wheat allergy. And while they have several factors in common, the illnesses are in fact very different.
It can be easy to confuse gluten intolerance, Celiac Disease and wheat allergy since the main commonality is a reaction to the presence of wheat: however, it is important to understand the differences. For instance, while introducing wheat to a person suffering from gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease may cause great discomfort, introducing wheat to a person suffering from a wheat allergy could result in death.
What It Is
Wheat allergies occur when the immune system malfunctions in the presence of wheat. Normally, the immune system protects the body from harmful substances like viruses and bacteria. But when it malfunctions, it responds inappropriately to wheat; a substance most people’s bodies perceive as harmless. Consequently, the body overproduces chemicals called histamines, which cause allergy symptoms like runny nose, itchy watery eyes, or swelling. Allergies may manifest as external or internal symptoms and in any part of the body. Reactions can range from mild to severe and include anaphylaxis.
Alternatives to wheat include amaranth, barley, corn, oat, quinoa, rice, rye and tapioca.
It should be noted that approximately 20 percent of children with wheat allergies are also allergic to other grains. Be sure to ask your child’s pediatrician if your child may be allergic to grains other than wheat.
What It Is Not
A wheat allergy is not the same as Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance.
Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation and damage to the lining of the small intestine due to an abnormal immune response to gluten. Symptoms of Celiac Disease are not the same for every sufferer and can range between abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation, nausea and vomiting. Although the reaction is immune based, it is different from an allergy because it only affects one area of the body and is not fatal.
Gluten intolerance also causes abdominal or intestinal discomfort after a person eats gluten. People suffering from gluten intolerance may experience a reaction to gluten as severe as those suffering from Celiac Disease. However, gluten intolerance is different from Celiac Disease because intolerance and sensitivity to gluten in these cases are not autoimmune related and do not result in damage to the small intestine, as is the case with Celiac Disease. In addition to gastrointestinal discomfort, people with gluten intolerance may experience headache and fatigue. While doctors can test for and diagnose Celiac Disease, they cannot do the same for gluten intolerance.
People suffering from Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance must avoid all grains including amaranth, barley, corn, oat, quinoa, rice, rye and tapioca.
Wheat Free vs. Gluten Free
Be sure to look for wheat-free options when making food choices for your child who suffers from a wheat allergy. It may be tempting to choose food products that are gluten free also since they will necessarily be free of wheat. The problem with choosing gluten free options for wheat allergies is that many other nutrients may also be lacking in the food product, and children may be unnecessarily limited. Check to see if gluten free products are fortified with nutrients in the same manner as products that contain gluten. Specifically, check carbohydrates, fat, sodium and fiber contents on the food label.
As with any allergy or food intolerance, be sure to read labels thoroughly every time you shop to ensure that allergens or offending foods are not present. Ingredient lists often change, as do advisory statements included on food labels. And because symptoms may be similar, remember to always consult a physician to determine whether you or your child may be suffering from a food allergy, intolerance or Celiac Disease.