Woman feels sick while eating lunch

What’s the Difference Between Wheat and Gluten Intolerance?

Gluten-free and wheat-free diets have become increasingly popular lately, and it is estimated that around 15% of the population is actually intolerant to gluten.

Why have these dietary requirements become so prevalent all of a sudden?

For a number of reasons, such as:

  • Better awareness and diagnostics mean that doctors are recognizing these dietary requirements more
  • Modern varieties of wheat are completely different from the varieties that our ancestors used to grow
  • People are now consuming more and more wheat-based products, many of which haven’t been prepared in a healthy way

So, is a gluten-intolerance and a wheat-intolerance the same thing?

Definitely not. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, there are some big differences between the two…

What Exactly Are Gluten and Wheat?

Let’s begin by going back to basics and taking a closer look at what gluten and wheat actually are…

Wheat is a cereal grain that is milled into a flour and then used to make a variety of different foods, such as:

  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Noodles
  • Cakes
  • Snack foods
  • Sauces

Gluten is a composite protein within the wheat, but can also be found in barley and rye.

Therefore, while all foods that contain wheat also contain gluten, gluten can come from sources other than wheat too.

Infographic on the content of gluten in different foods

What is a Wheat Intolerance?

A wheat intolerance, which is also referred to as a wheat sensitivity, refers to the body creating an inflammatory response when it comes across the proteins (including gluten) contained in wheat.

Symptoms don’t necessarily manifest immediately after the wheat has been eaten…

It can sometimes take up to 72 hours for symptoms to arise, and this can be diagnosing a wheat intolerance slightly tricky.

Wondering what the symptoms of a wheat intolerance are?

They vary between individuals, but often include:

  • Digestive problems – such as bloating, stomach pains or IBS
  • Skin problems – such as acne, eczema and rashes 
  • Neurological problems – such as migraines and headaches
  • Fatigue – a noticeable lethargy and lack of energy
  • Psychological problems – such as depression and anxiety

Is Wheat Intolerance the Same As Wheat Allergy?

A wheat intolerance is an inflammatory response, while a wheat allergy is a real allergy.

If you have a wheat allergy, you will likely experience the symptoms of this either immediately after consuming wheat, or just a few hours after.

Symptoms include:

  • Skin irritations
  • A blocked nose
  • Watering eyes
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Anaphylactic shock

As you can see, the symptoms range from quite mild to life-threatening

Fortunately, true wheat allergies are extremely rare. They are most commonly found in children, but most kids grow out of this once they reach the age of five. In some cases, the allergy does continue on into adulthood.

Wondering if wheat allergies are triggered by the gluten within wheat?

They can be, but there are around 30 other potential allergens within wheat too. This means that a wheat allergy could be caused by any of these.

What is Gluten Intolerance?

Many people think that a gluten intolerance is the same as an allergy, but this isn’t the case…

While a gluten intolerance is a physical condition, it takes place in the gut.

What causes it?

Sometimes gluten isn’t digested properly, meaning that undigested proteins enter into the intestines.

This triggers your body into treating them just like a foreign invader. This results in an irritated gut lining, as well as flattened microvilli.

What are microvilli?

They are compounds that increase the surface area of each cell, enabling them to better absorb nutrients. When these end up flattened against the wall of your intestines, your body becomes unable to properly absorb the nutrients within the food that you eat.

Symptoms of a gluten intolerance include:

A gluten intolerance is often referred to as a non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).

What About Gluten Allergies?

Have you heard people mention gluten allergies before?

Well, let’s get one thing straight…

There’s no such thing as a gluten allergy. It is definitely not an official medical condition.

Instead, people sometimes use the phrase gluten allergy to refer to a gluten intolerance, or even to Celiac disease.

Where Does Celiac Disease Come Into All of This?

Just like a wheat allergy, Celiac disease is an official medical condition.

What exactly is it?

It is an autoimmune disorder that arises when a person who suffers from the condition eats wheat. Their body basically creates an immune response that causes it to attack its small intestines, which then damage the microvilli that line the gut.

As you know, the microvilli are essential for the body to properly absorb nutrients, meaning that those with undiagnosed Celiac disease could potentially suffer from some serious health problems in the long run.

Infographic on celiac disease

Wondering how common Celiac disease is?

It is believed that Celiac disease affects about one in every one hundred people worldwide. However, one in eight of these people do not realize that they have it, or have not been officially diagnosed, which would be extremely problematic for them in the future.

What causes Celiac disease?

It’s hereditary, meaning that it would be in your genes and there’s not really much you can do about that.

Is there a cure?

Unfortunately not, at least not yet.

The main treatment for the disease is a gluten-free diet, which will be discussed more further down.

Diagnosing Wheat and Gluten Intolerances

As you can see, the differences between all of the intolerances and allergies mentioned above can be a little confusing.

Think you may be suffering from one?

The best way to find out for sure is by seeing your doctor, so that proper diagnostic tests can be run.

Wondering how these conditions are actually tested for?

It depends on your systems, but it usually goes as follows:

  • Diagnosing Celiac disease – this is usually the first step when dealing with any of the symptoms mentioned earlier. This involves a blood screening, as well as a biopsy of the small intestine. Your doctor will also likely want to see whether your symptoms reduce or disappear if you follow a gluten-free diet for a while
  • Diagnosing a wheat allergy – this is carried out in the same way that other food allergies are diagnosed, with a skin prick test or RAST. You may also need to undergo blind pacebo tests that make use of wheat
  • Diagnosing a gluten intolerance/ NCGS – Celiac disease and a wheat allergy, along with other disorders that could be causing your symptoms, would first be ruled out. You would then likely need to try following a gluten-free diet for a while to see if this helps. If it does, then this may be enough to diagnose you with a gluten intolerance 

All three of these conditions are medically recognized. However, there isn’t a cure, meaning that this is where gluten-free and wheat-free diets come in…

Gluten-Free and Wheat-Free Diets

With the only way to treat the above conditions being a specialized diet, and with all of the above conditions on the rise, it comes as no surprise that both gluten-free and wheat-free diets have become so prevalent.

A wheat-free diet does not contain any wheat, but can still contain rye and barley.

On the other hand, a gluten-free diet does not contain wheat, rye, barley, or anything else that contains gluten.

Does that mean that a person who requires a wheat-free diet could safely eat a gluten-free diet?

Not necessarily…

As mentioned earlier, there are around 30 potential allergens that have been identified in wheat, and gluten is only one of these. All of those other wheat-based compounds could still be used to create certain gluten-free foods, so long as the gluten itself is not used.

It works the other way too – a person requiring a gluten-free diet wouldn’t be safe eating a wheat-free diet. Those diets may still contain rye and barley, or even just the gluten from them, and this would trigger a reaction.

Don’t suffer from a wheat or gluten intolerance or allergy, but want to know whether you can still eat a gluten-free or wheat-free diet?

With these diets becoming quite trendy, so many people believe that they are the healthy way to go. They end up following a gluten-free diet, even though they don’t necessarily need to.

Although this isn’t necessarily dangerous, there are a few reasons as to why you may want to think twice about this:

  • Whole wheat is a great source of dietary fiber, and the average American is already deficient in fiber. Yes, it’s possible to get this fiber from other sources, but you would need to put more effort into this
  • Many bread and cereal products are fortified with important vitamins that are difficult to get elsewhere, such as the B vitamins. However, gluten-free and wheat-free products don’t tend to be fortified with these, meaning that you may need to turn to a dietary supplement
  • Truly being gluten-free can be extremely difficult. Gluten is found in so many foods, from flavorings to vitamins to soy sauce, and even in toothpaste and certain medications. You may have to make quite a few lifestyle choices to go down this route
  • Even though these diets are not necessarily any better for you, they will still likely end up costing quite a bit more than your regular diet

If you are just trying to eat in a healthier way, there are plenty of other ways in which you could do this so much better than following a gluten-free or wheat-free diet. 

Ancient Wheat Varieties

Many experts believe that wheat itself isn’t the problem when it comes to the health conditions mentioned above.

Wheat has been feeding humans for more than 10,000 years, so something must have changed!

Well, there could be some logic behind this thinking…

The wheat varieties grown today are so different from the varieties of wheat that our ancestors used to grow. Ancient wheat is genetically different and has less chromosomes, and this makes it easier for the human body to digest. Ancient varieties have also been found to cause a lower immune reaction than today’s wheat.

While those with Celiac disease would still need to avoid these ancient wheat varieties, those with a gluten intolerance may potentially be able to slowly introduce these varieties into their diet.

Even if you don’t suffer from a gluten or wheat intolerance, ancient wheat varieties could still benefit you, as they have been proven to be far more nutritious. They contain higher levels of minerals, including selenium, zinc and copper, than modern wheat, making it no surprise that so many people now suffer from deficiencies in those minerals. 

Why have the wheat varieties grown by humans changed so much over the years?

It happened quite recently, in the 60’s, with today’s wheat mostly being a form of dwarf wheat. This wheat is basically a cash crop when it comes to the high yields they provide, and this is something that ancient wheat has a hard time competing with.

Can’t find any breads available that have been made from ancient grains?

You can always buy the grains yourself, and then make your own bread.

Key grains to keep an eye out for include:

  • Einkorn – one of the oldest of wheat varieties with the simplest genetic structure
  • Emmer – also known as farro, emmer can be harder to find
  • Spelt – can also sometimes be referred to as farro, and is quite similar to wheat in terms of flavor and gluten content
  • Kamut – originated in Egypt, kamut is quite low in gluten, and has a beautiful buttery flavor 

With gluten and wheat intolerances becoming so much more common, it is always useful to understand the differences between these conditions. If you think you may be suffering from any of their symptoms, it would definitely be worthwhile to pay a visit to your doctor so that you can be properly diagnosed.

Woman spreading cheese on bread

Signs and Symptoms Of Wheat Allergies

There is an old saying, “He who will have a cake out of the wheat must tarry the grinding.” A truer proverb may never have been said, but what of those who must have the wheat out of the cake?

To say wheat allergies are no fun may be an understatement. Wheat is a main ingredient in some of the most beloved foods in America including donuts, cookies, cakes, muffins, crackers, waffles and pretzels, hot dogs, and ice cream. That sure limits the menu at baseball games. I guess this is what was meant by “tarrying the grinding.” Here are some of the things that can help to recognize, diagnose, and treat this troubling condition.

Symptoms of A Wheat Allergy
A wheat allergy is the result of a response that causes the immune system to attack wheat proteins because it falsely recognizes them as harmful substances. Symptoms include nasal congestion, eczema, hives, asthma, swelling of the mouth or throat, watery, itchy eyes, diarrhea, vomiting and bloating of the stomach. Anaphylaxis also may occur causing tightness of the throat, chest pain and difficulty breathing, a weak pulse, bluish flesh, and a possibly fatal drop in blood pressure. Although some adults have wheat allergies, they are more common in children and are usually resolved by the age of 5.

Diagnosis
There are various tests to diagnose wheat allergy. In many cases, patients are asked to keep a diary of the foods they eat, noting the symptoms. Those experiencing symptoms of wheat allergies will be asked to eliminate wheat and wheat products from their diet, then slowly reintroduce them at intervals. This, along with the food diary, will help to pinpoint the problem-causing foods, which can then be replaced.

Another way of revealing a wheat allergy is food challenge testing, which usually takes place at a hospital or clinic. The patient ingests capsules containing suspected allergens. The doses are gradually increased while symptoms are monitored to determine whether an allergic reaction takes place.

The skin prick test consists of diluted food drops placed on an individual’s back or arm. If itching or redness occurs, the test is considered positive. Blood tests can also be used to detect antibodies indicating food allergies.

Treatment
Although the recent amount of attention to gluten sensitivity has increased the emergence of wheat-free products, wheat proteins may still be difficult to avoid. Antihistimines can eliminate or lower allergy symptoms by lowering the immune system and should be taken after being exposed to wheat. This medication should be used only under professional guidance.

Adrenaline, or epinephrine is often used in an anaphylactic emergency. Patients who are at high risk of anaphylaxis are instructed to have two injectable doses of the treatment on hand. Auto-injector pens open airways, helping the patient to breathe more easily and restoring low blood pressure.

Risk Factors
If there is hay fever, asthma and allergy in the family history, the risk of developing a wheat allergy increases. Young children and infants are more likely targets because their digestive and immune systems are not fully developed. Exercise has been known to trigger responses to wheat product and may lead to anaphylaxis.

If you have, or have had wheat allergies, we would love to hear how you “tarry the grinding.” Let us know how you deal with them. We’d love to hear it.