Wheat Allergy 101 – everything you need to know to stay safe. Includes wheat vs gluten, a list of wheat allergy symptoms, and what you need to avoid to not have a reaction.
Wheat allergies are one of the most common allergies, often confused with gluten intolerance or celiac disease. But the surprising thing is that while many of the symptoms overlap, these are three different conditions of the body with three dramatically different outcomes. However, there are simple things you can do to determine if you have a wheat allergy and how best to manage your allergy. This article walks you through all aspects of a wheat allergy, symptoms, what to avoid, what you can still enjoy, and how best to manage your wheat allergy.
What is a Wheat Allergy?
Wheat allergies are one of the most common allergies in the world, making it included in the top 8 allergens. It is generally an allergy that is outgrown if developed in childhood with upwards of ⅔s of all children outgrowing this allergy by age 12. If you become allergic to wheat as an adult, you will probably have this for the rest of your life.
An allergy occurs when the body is exposed to the wheat protein and develops a strong IgE antibody response. This is the bodies own antibodies working to protect the body from something it sees as a threat, in this case a wheat protein. The body responds by triggering the immune system that has different effects on the body (see symptom list below) that can range from mild to life-threatening.
Wheat Allergy or Celiac Disease?
Wheat allergies and celiac disease can seem similar at first, though they are two very different responses in the body. It is further complicated as they are both reactions of the autoimmune systems. Let’s break down the differences between the two.
A Wheat allergy occurs when the wheat proteins cause the body to stimulate the immune system into hyperdrive, causing what is known as an allergic reaction. These can be life threatening events that must be treated as quickly as possible, with a trip to the hospital if the reaction is severe. Symptoms include anaphylaxis, asthma, swelling of the tongue and throat, hives, trouble breathing, itching, coughing, rashes, shock, and panic attacks.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune response triggered by wheat and gluten proteins. It causes the body to have attack itself, damaging the stomach and small intestines. An IgE response does not occur when a person has celiac and therefore, no risk of anaphylaxis is present. A gastroenterologist will assist you with celiac disease. It is just as important to get a diagnosis as long term effects on the body include malnutrition and permanent intestinal damage if left untreated.
Only a doctor can tell you for certain if you have a wheat allergy or celiac disease. Make an appointment with your doctor or allergy specialist if you suspect you have one!
Symptoms of a Wheat Allergy
Most children and adults will develop an allergic reaction either immediately, a few minutes, and as long as a few hours after consuming wheat. Remember, some people are so allergic to certain foods that even touching the food or smelling the food can cause a reaction.
A list of probable reactions includes:
- swelling, itching, or irritation of the mouth, lips, tongue, or throat
- Asthma attacks
- eczema on the skin
- hives, itching rash of the skin
- nasal congestion
- difficulty breathing
- cramping and/or pain of the stomach or bowels
- anaphylactic reaction
Anaphylactic Wheat Allergy
For some people, a life threatening reaction known as an anaphylactic reaction may occur after consuming, touching, or smelling wheat or wheat by-products. If this happens, please call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Signs and symptoms of this include:
- Swelling or tightening of the throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain or tightness
- Trouble swallowing
- Dizziness or fainting
- Change of normal coloring of the skin
- for light skin, check for signs of dark blue tints in the mucous membranes (inner lips, gums, around the eyes, and nail beds)
- for medium skin, check for signs of a gray-green tint in the mucous membranes
- for dark skin, check for signs of gray or white tint in the mucous membranes
How to Manage Wheat Allergies
The best way to manage your wheat allergy is to avoid any and all forms of wheat and wheat by-products.
If after some time you feel you would like to test and see if you are still allergic to wheat, consult your doctor and ask about doing a challenge test to gauge your reaction under the supervision of your doctor.
Being Your Own Allergy Advocate
And if you are certain something is wrong, don’t give up! My primary care physician at the time was unconvinced I had developed a new allergy in my late 20s. He was ready to prescribe an anti-acid medication, assuming I was eating too much fast food. However, I was adamant in my knowing that something was wrong and went to an allergy specialist. I had my blood checked and my IgE levels were off the charts! We did an elimination diet of wheat and saw immediate improvements in my health. Be your own advocate at the doctor’s office, and make sure you take someone with you to help navigate if you need.
What You Can Eat with a Wheat Allergy
Since developing my wheat allergy, I have found myself cooking at home more than ever. My diet has shifted to include simple whole foods, things like meats, vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, and safe grains. Safe grains include quinoa, teff, millet, white rice, brown rice, corn, and oats. Make sure your oats are labeled gluten free as they often are processed on the same line as wheat.
When I do want a sandwich, I sometimes reach for items on grocery shelves that are labeled gluten free in the dedicated gluten free section of the store. Living with allergies has gotten a lot more convenient since I was a kid when they didn’t have the variety of things we do now!
Canyon Bakehouse Breads are among my favorite breads. Trader Joe’s makes an amazing gluten free everything bagel. Pamela’s makes a great all-purpose gluten free flour. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s both have AMAZING gluten free pasta options. And I am very lucky to have a local pizza parlor be certified celiac friendly for those nights when I crave a pizza.
Can You Eat Gluten if Allergic to Wheat?
If you have a wheat allergy specifically, you may still be able to enjoy barley, oats, and rye. These are grains that do not contain any wheat protein but do contain gluten. Some people are able to safely eat these gluten filled products as long as they avoid wheat. Including these grains in your diet can help you to enjoy variety of products and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
However, there are some people who are unable to consume any form of wheat or gluten. In that instance, you would need to avoid all wheat and gluten in all its forms.
To figure out what is best for you and your body, make sure you ask your doctor specifically if you need to avoid just wheat or all gluten.
What to Avoid with Wheat Allergies
The list of food to avoid with a wheat allergy is long. I’ve included all the ones that I have discovered but I’m sure there are some that I’ve missed. If you know of a wheat/gluten name that I’ve missed, let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to the list!
The list of food to avoid with wheat allergies is as follows:
- Bread crumbs
- Barley malt
- Cereal extract
- Club wheat
- Cracker meal
- Flour (all purpose, bread, white, whole wheat, etc)
- Glucose syrup
- Hydrolyzed wheat protein
- Matzoh, matzoh meal
- Oats (unless labeled gluten free)
- Sprouted wheat
- Soy sauce (unless labeled gluten free)
- Starches (gelatinized starch, modified starch, modified food starch, vegetable starch)
- Vital wheat gluten
- Wheat bran hydrolsate
- Wheat germ oil
- Wheat grass
- Wheat protein isolate
- Whole wheat berries
Wheat can also be found in the following items:
- Artificial and/or Natural flavorings
- Caramel color
- Food starch
- Glucose syrup
- Hydrolyzed wheat protein
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Textured vegetable protein
- Vegetable gum
For a full list of hidden sources of gluten, Celiac.com has put together this resource of hidden names of gluten.
Eating Out with Wheat Allergies
Perhaps the biggest change to my life has come from dining out with my wheat allergy. I can no long just grab a quick Mc Donald’s for a last minute supper, nor can I eat freely at a friend’s house.
The best way to avoid (or at least try to avoid) getting sick at restaurants is to research ahead of time. Most restaurants post their menus online, which gives me a chance to figure out if this restaurant would be a safe option. Even if the menu says “gluten free” I still will research, because it is really difficult to ensure that a chef who has been flinging flour around a kitchen for hours will make sure to wipe off any surfaces, open new bags of cheese to sprinkle, or even use a different set of gloves when preparing my food.
The biggest source of gluten/wheat cross contamination comes in the deep fryer. Oftentimes restaurants will fry everything in this single fryer, making it not safe for those with allergies. If you are eating out at a restaurant, ask if they have a separate fryer for allergens, and if not, it might be best to avoid fried food.
To that effect, some places I have found to be generally safe include:
- BBQ restaurants (order food that never would encounter a bun)
- Chick-fil-A (offers the most for gluten free, including buns and fries that are cooked in separate fryer)
- Mexican Restaurants
- Outback Steakhouse
- Boston Market
- In-And-Out (order protein style; fries not cooked in contaminated fryer)
- Sonic Drive-In (offers gluten free fries)
- Shake Shack (offers gluten free bun)
- Red Robin (offers gluten free bun, fries are contaminated in same single fryer)
- Panera Bread (their grain bowls, Green Goddess Cobb Salad, and other options are gluten free but be careful about this environment that is heavily contaminated with wheat/gluten)
(These places were safe at the time of this writing. As always, places change their menu and options constantly so please check before eating out.)
When dining at a friend’s house, I will always ask if I can bring an option that is wheat allergy safe.
Other Hidden Sources of Wheat Not in Food
Beyond food, there are places that wheat and gluten can hide, making you sick even though you don’t eat wheat anymore! While you won’t be eating these things, you should be aware that a reaction can occur from touching or smelling wheat. These hidden wheat places include:
- Medications (make sure you talk to your doctor before stopping medications and ask about switching to a wheat free formula)
- Toothpaste (used for thickening and binding agents)
- Wreaths and other home decorations (typically seen as a wheat stalk)
- Play-dough for kids
- Shampoos and conditioners (seen as thickening agents)
- Lotions (seen as thickening agents)
- Make-up (seen as thickening and binding agents)
Make sure you check these places and use the list above to make sure that you and your family are safe from these hidden wheat sources!