Spotlight on... wheat-free

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…

Spotlight on... wheat-free

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-free
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.

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.


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.


BloatingWheat 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 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 Dietician 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

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

Products to avoid
It is likely to 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*Oats

  • 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.


Health implications

SoyaWheat – 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 – like a pizza!
Griddled polenta with corn & green salsa
Polenta bruschetta with tapenade
Tomato, mozzarella & polenta tart

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 about special diets in our Spotlight section.
From gluten-free to low-GI, try out some of our recipes in our special diet collections.

This page was last reviewed on 30th August 2017 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (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 works as a Community Nutritionist and private consultant. She is a Registered Nutritionist (Public Health) registered with the UKVRN. Visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.

All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

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TheEightHours's picture
8th Oct, 2015
Did you know October is National Celiac Awareness Month? We rounded up our favourite GF recipes:
TheEightHours's picture
27th May, 2015
For healthy, tasty and more importantly wheat free recipes try: Taking all the favourites and old classics and adapting them to a safe/friendly version. Why should we all miss out.
15th Jan, 2015
I recently found out I have an allergy to wheat and I've been trying to research foods to avoid. I have several of the symptoms as listed, however I am confused about rye. Many informational sites say to avoid rye, but then also say you can eat rye with an allergy to wheat... so that's confusing. I know rye is a member of the wheat family. Is it just certain rye items you need to avoid because they conspicuously contain wheat or is rye altogether a bad idea for someone with a wheat allergy? Please help!!
goodfoodteam's picture
21st Jan, 2015
Hi Karabear26 thanks for getting in touch. Some rye products like breads also contain wheat which could be part of the problem and it could be that some people with wheat allergies and intolerances are also unable to eat rye and oats. Best thing to do is consult a medical professional as it really does vary from person to person. 
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