What are the symptoms of a wheat allergy or intolerance? What can you eat and what should you avoid when living wheat-free? Our nutritionist explains all and recommends recipes to help you on your way…
An introduction to wheat
Wheat (Triticum aestivum) has been the most important staple grain throughout history. Thought to have originated in southwest Asia, it has been consumed as a food for more than 10,000 years. Wheat is not native to the Western Hemisphere and was introduced here in the late fifteenth century when Columbus came to the New World. Wheat accounts for the largest cropland area of any food and is the most common cereal crop grown in the UK.
It is used in a variety of products, but its use as flour for bread and baked goods is the most prevalent. One of the key reasons why wheat is best suited for bread making in comparison to other grains is its high gluten content.
A note on gluten...
Gluten is composed of the two proteins gliadin and glutenin, which are found in many grains (wheat, oats, barley and rye) but is found in greatest quantity in wheat. Gluten gives wheat flour elasticity and strength and allows bread to ‘rise’. After kneading, gluten traps the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast, resulting in the expansion or ‘rising’ of the dough.
A wheat allergy is an immediate immune system response to a protein in the wheat, which your body mistakenly recognises as dangerous. Wheat is a common food allergen, especially in children. Common symptoms associated with wheat allergy include chronic gastrointestinal disturbances, infections, asthma, eczema, acne, joint pains, fatigue and migraine. Although relatively rare, a wheat allergy could conceivably cause anaphylactic shock.
Wheat intolerance and sensitivity
Intolerance occurs when the body has difficulty digesting wheat and therefore reacts against it. The symptoms are usually much less defined than allergy and may take several days to appear but can cause digestive and nutritional problems. Symptoms of wheat intolerance can include poor digestion, bloating and wind, fatigue, headaches and joint pains. People who are sensitive to wheat may be able to tolerate the other gluten grains i.e. oats, barley and rye. People with coeliac disease are allergic to gluten and must avoid it for life. It is important for anybody who suspects they might have a food allergy/intolerance to consult a nutritionist prior to removing whole food groups from their diet.
A note on Coeliac disease
Coeliac disease is a chronic auto-immune disease in which the immune system mistakes gluten as an allergen and causes severe symptoms. For more information on gluten-free diets and coeliac disease visit Coeliac UK and read our spotlight on – gluten-free guide.
Things to watch out for
Wheat can also be known as:
- Flour (plain, self raising, wholemeal, malted)
- Wheat germ
- Cereal binder/filler
- Modified starch
- Durum wheat
Products to avoid
It is likely to be found in:
- Baking powder
- Breakfast cereals
- Bottled sauces of all kinds
- Bread (unless specified wheat free)
- Cakes, buns, muffins, scones and all baked goods (unless specified)
- Cereal binder
- Chapatis, poppadams, naans
- Cheese spread/dips
- Curry powders
- Horseradish creams
- Instant hot drinks
- Monosodium glutamate
- Pasta or noodles (unless specified)
- Pitta breads
- Ready meals
- Rye breads and crackers
- Salad dressings
- Sauces and gravies
These lists are not exhaustive. For more information on wheat-free diets and resources visit Allergy UK.
*always check the labels*
- Those following a wheat-free diet can eat rice, oats, corn, rye and barley.
- Gluten-free bread flours contain combinations of buckwheat, chickpea (gram), corn/maize, millet, potato, rice and tapioca flour. These are not always easy to use as they lack the elasticity of gluten. As a result, bread may rise (thanks to yeast or raising agents) but promptly fall again to produce rather heavy loaves. Xanthan gum (powder) can be added to gluten-free flours and makes a reasonable substitute for gluten. 100% rye, oat or pumpernickel bread are good alternatives.
- Oats do not contain the protein that affects those with a wheat allergy. As a result, pure oatcakes and crackers should be fine for anyone with a wheat allergy.
- Wheat-free cakes and biscuits are easier to find (and make), especially if you are using eggs. You can use oats or millet flakes in combination with some of the finer flours. Ground corn/maize meal (polenta) are a useful alternative.
- There are now a large number of wheat-free pastas on the market based on corn, rice and buckwheat and other flours. The same is true of pizza bases which are fine if covered with tasty toppings.
- Sausages use a substantial amount of wheat-based rusk however there are a number of 100% pure meat sausages. Chorizo and other continental sausages may be free of gluten but still check ingredients carefully.
- Cornflour/starch, potato flour and arrowroot all work well as thickeners for sauces, both savoury and sweet.
- You can now get gluten-free beer, lager and stout.
Wheat – as a raw material is very nutritious. However as a standard rule, processed wheat products such as pasta, noodles, breads and biscuits use white flour that undergoes a refining process in which the wheat grain is removed. By removing the wheat grain, the most nutritious aspects of the wheat (the bran and germ) are removed. As a result, more than half the B vitamins, folic acid, zinc, copper, phosphorous, calcium and iron are removed. Unextracted, wholemeal (wholewheat) products yield a good supply of dietary fibre and manganses. It also contains a healthy portion of B vitamins, vitamin E and folic acid.
For those eating wheat-free, opt for alternative wholegrains and starchy carbohydrates such as buckwheat flour, chestnut flour, corn (maize), gram (chickpea), millet, quinoa, potatoes, rice, soya and tapioca.
Lots of recipes can be made wheat-free by finding appropriate substitutes. Here are a few to get you started:
Make your own oatcakes – with 100% oats
Jo Lewin holds a degree in nutritional therapy and works as a community health nutritionist and private consultant. She is an accredited member of BANT, covered by the association's code of ethics and practice.
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