This page is an in-depth look at wheat intolerance and hypersensitivity. It covers the following:
What is wheat intolerance?
Wheat intolerance is a relatively rare form of food sensitivity. A recent Japanese study indicates that as few as 0.21% of adults suffer from the condition. However, it is a growing issue, especially in countries like the US.
Those who have the condition are sensitive to one of the 27 potential allergens in wheat. There may be more wheat allergens, but to date only 27 have been identified.
What are the main wheat protein allergens?
The main protein allergens in wheat are:
Seed storage wheat proteins
Serine protease inhibitors
You may be allergic to one or more of these proteins.
The difference between wheat and gluten intolerance
Most people realise that wheat contains gluten, so they naturally assume they cannot eat it because they are gluten intolerant. In reality, this is not always the case. Sometimes they are only allergic to certain components in the wheat. This means that they can actually eat other food products that contain gluten. They just need to avoid eating wheat, which means they do not have to follow a very restrictive diet. At least not as restricted as the one those who are gluten intolerant have to follow.
The following allergens are also found in wheat, but they are related to gluten intolerance rather than wheat hypersensitivity:
Prolamins like gliadin, which have high proline content
Gluten intolerance is also a serious issue that affects millions of people. If you want information about gluten intolerance, you can find it in the gluten section of this website. In the meantime, here is a brief overview of the difference between the two intolerance and allergies.
Gluten free products should not be eaten by those who are wheat intolerant
Those who have an allergic reaction to wheat cannot eat gluten-free wheat products. For example if they eat wheat based gluten free bread, they will still have an allergic reaction.
Those with a wheat allergy or intolerance need a completely wheat free bread, not just a gluten free bread, which is made with wheat that has had the gluten removed.
The causes of wheat sensitivity
An intolerance of wheat is a food sensitivity or allergy that tends to run in families. Therefore, it is believed to be largely a genetic condition. However, the fact it is a growing issue is leading some professionals in the field to question whether there are other underlying causes of wheat sensitivity.
There also appears to be an ethnic component to wheat sensitivity.
The symptoms of wheat intolerance
The majority of the symptoms related to wheat intolerance are connected to the skin or respiratory system.
An adverse reaction to wheat is normally delayed by one or two hours, but it can take days for symptoms to appear. Wheat is a complex food, which takes time for your body to break down, which is one reason symptoms can be delayed.
Foods to avoid if you have a true wheat allergy or intolerance
Naturally, you need to avoid any food products that contain wheat. Some are easy to spot, such as bread. Others like gravy mix are less obvious.
Here is a comprehensive list of foods you need to avoid.
Bread and baked goods that contain wheat derivatives
Most breads include wheat
Breads made primarily of other grains like corn may still contain wheat
Most cakes, biscuits, suet puddings and doughnuts
Most pastry products
Pancakes and crepes
Pasta including tinned varieties
Flours that are not suitable for those with a wheat intolerance
All forms of wheat flour including whole grain or whole-wheat flour
Most cereals contain wheat even some brands of Rice Krispies contain wheat
Meat and fish products that may contain wheat
Processed meats like burgers, sausages, hot dogs and salami
Fish or meat pastes
Breaded meats like scotch eggs or chicken Kiev
Meatballs and rissoles
Tinned meats such as corned beef and luncheon meat
Processed ham, turkey and other factory produced sliced meats
Hidden wheat in vegetable based products
Vegetables in breadcrumbs or batter including some tempura batters
Some Vegetable spreads, which are thickened with products that contain wheat like flour
Condiments and cooking ingredients that contain traces of wheat
Instant gravy and some stock cubes
Pre-prepared sauces and some spice mixes
Most dry sauce mixes
Some dressings and mayonnaise
Some soy sauces
Hidden wheat in dessert products
As well as the baked goods listed above some yogurt and ice cream products also contain wheat or wheat derivatives.
Drinks that may contain traces of wheat
Hot malted beverages and malted beer
Some other beers, ales, stouts and lagers
Hidden wheat in foods
With some foods, it is obvious that there is wheat in them with others it is less obvious, here are some more sources of wheat that you need to keep a look out for:
Medications – your pharmacist will make sure that you are given wheat free medications if you explain that you ask.
Communion wafers – some churches offer wheat free communion wafers
Glue on some envelopes and stamps
Other wheat related ingredients to be aware of if you are wheat intolerant
As well as checking the labels for the word wheat, you need to look out for the following words and avoid those foods that contain them.
Cereal fillers or binders
Gluten or vital gluten
Malt or malt extract
Modified food starch
Monosodium glutamate – MSG
This is not an exhaustive list, but it covers the vast majority of the foods that contain some form of wheat. It looks like a huge list, but do not worry there are many alternative wheat free foods that you can happily eat instead.
If you are allergic to wheat, please consult your nutritionist or doctor for a comprehensive list of foods you should not eat. This is very important, for example, someone with wheat intolerance can get away with eating oat-based products, but someone with an allergy may want to cut oats out of their diet because of the risk that the oats have been contaminated by wheat dust during harvesting or storage.
Remember gluten-free does not necessarily mean wheat free. You will need to check the label of gluten free foods carefully before eating them.
Avoiding these foods should greatly improve your health. However, bear in mind that if you have a wheat intolerance or allergy there is a good chance you will also be intolerant of other foods. Therefore, it makes sense to be tested for other food allergies or intolerances at the same time as undergoing wheat sensitivity testing.
Wheat free alternatives
Here is an overview of some of the wheat free foods you can enjoy and use as alternatives:
Wheat free baked goods
Baked goods made with one of the wheat free flours listed below are increasingly becoming available.
Wheat free flour alternatives
Maize flour (cornflour)
Potato and potato starch flour
Some of these flours are quite rare and are not available in all parts of the world, but I have listed all the wheat flours I am aware of because I know I have readers from many countries.
Many of these flours are suitable for baking, but most need ingredients like starch added to them to make them suitable for this use. I plan to write a piece on wheat and gluten free flours, which explains in detail what each flour is and what meals and recipes each one is best for. When I do I will post a link to that page here.
Wheat free bread
It is relatively easy to buy gluten free bread, but not so easy to buy wheat free bread. There are a few available and most are made from a mix of flours.
Some are very much like regular bread, others have a different texture to regular bread. However, most are actually nice, so I highly recommend that you give them a go. You will get used to them and end up actually enjoying them. Over the years, I have become quite a fan of flat breads and potato bread.
Wheat free pasta
Pasta made from rice
Wheat free cereals
Some brands of Cornflakes, Rice Krispies and Grits are also free of wheat
Wheat free desserts
Baked goods made from wheat free flours
Wheat free yoghurt
Home made ice creams or strawberries
Home made pudding made with wheat free flours or alternatives
Wheat free condiments
Sauces thickened with corn flour or arrowroot
Home made sauces and mayonnaise
Getting tested for wheat intolerance
If one of your parents or grandparents has found that eating wheat products makes them ill, the chances are you could have the same problem. If you suspect you have food hypersensitivity and know others in your family cannot eat wheat products try removing those products from your diet. That may save you fro on a full elimination diet.
Also, ask your doctor for wheat allergy testing.
Usually testing is carried out in a hospital or clinic. It is normally diagnosed using a scratch test. However, if the result is inconclusive a RAST blood test may be ordered as well. This test is also known as an IgE blood test.
Often someone who is sensitive to wheat products will have other food allergies or intolerances. This is why many doctors will test for a range of food intolerances when a wheat allergy is suspected.
Wheat intolerance and chronic disease
Sensitivity to wheat has been shown to play a significant role in a range of chronic diseases. Cutting wheat out of your diet can greatly improve your health. Here is an overview of the main diseases, which are known to be caused by or at least to be made worse by wheat intolerance.
The connection between wheat intolerance and hay fever
Wheat pollen does not seem to cause the respiratory symptoms of hay fever, but some people who suffer from wheat intolerance cannot walk through a field of wheat without suffering the symptoms of hay fever. It is likely that the dust that rises from the ears of wheat is the reason for this.
Autoimmune arthritis and wheat sensitivity
There is a connection between wheat intolerance and rheumatoid arthritis in some people. If you suffer from this form of arthritis it is worth being tested for wheat intolerance, cutting wheat out of your diet could greatly improve your health.
Rarer wheat intolerant reactions and diseases
The issues covered in this section are extremely rare, but I have incorporated them because I know some people suffer from these more unusual forms of wheat allergy and intolerance.
Baker’s allergy to wheat
Another rare form is the intolerance that some people involved in food production develop to wheat flour and some other flours. This is known as baker’s allergy because so many bakery staff develop the condition. It is often the underlying cause of new cases of asthma amongst food production workers.
Allergies to wheat derivatives
Some foods and cosmetics contain hydrolyzed wheat proteins. Hydrolyzed wheat proteins are used in cosmetics because of their moisturising properties.
Someone who is intolerant to wheat may need to avoid cosmetics that contain wheat derivatives. Unfortunately, it is not always obvious when a cosmetic contains wheat. Most cosmetics do not list it on the ingredients. If a product makes your skin tingle it may be because it contains a wheat derivative, so it is wise to stop using it.
This is a rare form of wheat allergy or intolerance. A person with this form of wheat intolerance will usually be symptom free in day-to-day life. However, when they eat wheat products and exercise while the wheat is still in their systems they can experience symptoms.
During exercise, proteins from the wheat enter the blood stream. This wheat protein rich blood is carried rapidly around the body and causes an allergic reaction. It can be mild, but sometimes it will cause asthmatic symptoms.
The presence of aspirin seems to exacerbate the problem. There is also some evidence that certain chemical additives like MSG can also make matters worse.
Wheat intolerance and migraines
A study in the 70s suggested that there might be a connection between migraines and sensitivity to foods containing wheat. When wheat and a range of ten other foods were removed from the diet the symptoms of migraine suffers reduced. You can read about the main study into the connection between wheat sensitivity and migraine by following the link.
The connection between intolerance of wheat and autism
There is some evidences that people who are autistic can benefit from a wheat free diet. It is very much early days for this area of research, and to date no proper lab controlled studies have been carried out, but a wheat free diet may be worth trying if you have an autistic child with gastrointestinal problems.
Research into wheat intolerance is still ongoing and new discoveries are being made. As new research is released, I plan to update this page and include details about new discoveries that may help you in the news section.