A slice of bread with a question mark cut out of it on a board

Spotlight on… wheat-free

What are the symptoms of a wheat allergy or intolerance? What can you eat and what should you avoid when eating a wheat-free diet? Our nutritionist explains all.

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 15th century. Wheat accounts for the largest cropland area of any food, and is the most common cereal crop grown in the UK.

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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 (including wheat, 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.

People often think oats contain gluten, but they actually contain avenin, which is a protein similar to gluten. However, research has shown many people who avoid gluten can safely eat avenin, although you should be aware that oats may be cross-contaminated by gluten due to manufacturing procedures. Oats sold as ‘gluten-free’ are produced without the risk of cross-contamination from other grains.

Wheat allergies

A wheat allergy is an immediate immune system response to a protein in the wheat, which your body mistakenly recognises as dangerous. Symptoms associated with wheat allergy include chronic gastrointestinal disturbances, infections, asthma, eczema, acne, joint pains, fatigue and migraine.

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. barley and rye. People with coeliac disease have an auto-immune disease caused by a reaction to gluten and must avoid it for life.

It is important for anybody who suspects they might have a food allergy/intolerance to ask their GP for a referral to a registered Dietitian 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 mistakenly attacks itself when gluten has been eaten. This causes damage to the lining of the gut and means that the body is unable to properly absorb nutrients from food. 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

Labelling
Wheat can also be known as:

  • Bran
  • Bulgar
  • Couscous
  • Flour (plain, self raising, wholemeal, malted)
  • Semolina
  • Wheat germ
  • Cereal binder/filler
  • Modified starch
  • Durum wheat
  • Farro
  • Kamut/spelt
A selection of grains, pasta and bread

Products to avoid/check before eating
Wheat or wheat derivatives may be found in:

  • Baking powder
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Breadcrumbs/coatings
  • 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
  • Oatcakes
  • Pancakes/waffles
  • Pasta or noodles (unless specified)
  • Pastry
  • Pitta breads
  • Pizzas
  • Ready meals
  • Rye breads and crackers
  • Rusk
  • Salad dressings
  • Sauces and gravies
  • Semolina
  • Taramasalata

These lists are not exhaustive. For more information on wheat-free diets and resources visit Allergy UK.

Wheat-free alternatives

*always check the labels*

  • Those following a wheat-free diet can eat rice, oats (labelled ‘gluten-free’), 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.

A selection of grains in bowls

Health implications

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 manganese. 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.

Wheat-free recipes

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
Cranberry oatcakes

Classic recipes without the wheat:
Chicken & leek pie
Pasta & mixed peppers with walnut & lemon pesto

Try polenta as a base for toppings:
Griddled polenta with corn & green salsa
Polenta bruschetta with tapenade
Polenta pizza with purple sprouting broccoli & mozzarella

Heavenly wheat-free desserts and sweets:
Choc-cherry fudge torte with cherry sorbet
Cranberry, maple & pecan pudding
Gluten-free hot cross buns
Lemon & orange cake

Read more

Spotlight on… gluten-free
Gluten-free foods: What to eat and what to avoid
Do you have a food intolerance?
10 foods you think are gluten-free but aren’t


This page was last reviewed on 11 December 2019 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.

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