Many people are under the impression that “wheat-free” is synonymous with “gluten-free.”
But for those who live with celiac disease, “gluten sensitivity,” or wheat allergy, it is critical to understand the difference between these terms and plan a diet accordingly.
Celiac disease is a recognized genetic, autoimmune disorder. When gluten – a protein that is found in wheat, barley, and rye – enters the digestive system of a person with celiac disease, it is perceived as a foreign substance and the small intestine is attacked by the immune system. When this attack occurs, the villi – the finger-like structures that line the walls of the small intestine – fail to do their job, which leads to malabsorption of essential nutrients. Depending on the individual, the results of malabsorption can be mild or deadly as the digestive system slowly loses function. Today, the treatment for celiac disease is to remain gluten-free to prevent an attack from the immune system.
On the other hand, a person with gluten sensitivity often has symptoms similar to those of a person with celiac disease; but people with gluten sensitivity do not experience the immune system response and intestinal damage that those with celiac disease experience. Thus far, it has been difficult to exactly define gluten sensitivity. The only way to evaluate for the sensitivity is to try different types of diets, including gluten-free and wheat-free, and see how the person’s body reacts. Based on the reaction, a gluten-free or a wheat-free diet may alleviate the symptoms.
A wheat allergy – one of the eight most common food allergies in the United States – causes an immune reaction to the hundreds of proteins in wheat. When a person has a wheat allergy, the immune response pervades a person’s body, not just the digestive track. Depending on the severity of the allergy, the sufferer may develop itching, rash, hives, stuffy nose, watery eyes, wheezing, and even difficulty breathing. Avoiding wheat is the treatment for those suffering from a wheat allergy.
Gluten-free products often still contain some wheat because only the gluten protein has been removed. For this reason, people with a wheat allergy must read labels carefully to make sure that they don’t contain wheat. In the United States and United Kingdom, many products have been modified to remove gluten but not wheat starch. It can be difficult to discern the difference between products that contain wheat and those that contain gluten.
Although celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergy have similar treatments (to avoid the allergen), they are actually very different conditions. It is important to get a proper diagnosis from your doctor to find out what your condition is and to ensure that you enjoy a healthy diet.