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Wheat Grain

Wheat-Free vs Gluten-Free: Similar, But Different

The Essentials of Wheat and Gluten

Despite the massive popularity of gluten-free diets, there continues to be confusion about what gluten actually is. Many people adopt a gluten-free lifestyle without really understanding gluten in the first place, like in this classic lampoon (nsfw).

Gluten is a protein found in wheat (and some other grains). But wheat and gluten are not the same thing. So while they are related, the terms “wheat-free” and “gluten-free” are not exactly the same.

Wheat is a cereal. A cereal is a grass that is grown specifically for its grain or “fruit”, which in the case of wheat is called a wheat berry.  Such grains are staples of human diets around the world, with wheat being the second most popular cereal in the world behind maize (corn) and just ahead of rice.

Wheat is typically consumed in food made from wheat flour (breads, pasta, cakes, etc.). Flour is a byproduct of grains made by grinding the grain into a powder. The term “whole grain” refers to a grain that contains the germ, endosperm, and bran. A refined grain, on the other hand, has been stripped to include only the endosperm. It is this refined grain is ground down to create white flour, which is why product made from it are sometimes called “refined carbs”.

So how does gluten fit into this?

Gluten is a protein found in certain grains, including wheat, barley, and rye. These grains are all part of the Triticeae tribe of Poaceae grasses. These glutens are therefore referred to as Triticeae glutens, and they’re the ones that primarily cause digestive problems.

Gluten is actually made up of two proteins, glutenin and gliadin. These proteins are found in the endosperm of the grain, which is the part that remains even if it’s refined. Glutenin and gliadin wrap themselves around starch molecules and require water in order to be “activated.”

When baking with flour, adding water and then kneading or mixing the dough will cause the proteins to attach to each other. This bond between the proteins is described as the “gluten network”, and can best be imagined as an elastic chain or net that traps air bubbles (carbon dioxide) within the dough. This provides structure and texture that is hard to replicate without gluten. This is why wheat flour is so often used in baking and cooking.

The Problems with Wheat and Gluten

But as we know, not everyone can digest gluten properly. In those with celiac disease, gluten triggers a response that is damaging to the intestines . Those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity experience uncomfortable symptoms without the intestinal damage – including diarrhea, bloating, fatigue, and joint pain – when they consume gluten.

People with a wheat allergy experience symptoms that we normally associate with a food allergy when exposed to wheat: anaphylaxis, skin irritation, respiratory complications, and gastrointestinal problems. The reaction is typically triggered from eating wheat, but can also be caused by inhaling wheat flour.

That’s the critical difference between a person with a celiac and a person with a wheat allergy. The symptoms are different because gluten intolerance involves an abnormal immune system reaction that causes inflammation of the small intestines, while a wheat allergy involves an overreaction of the immune system to a food protein it sees as a potential threat. The allergic reaction can be deadly due to anaphylaxis symptoms; however, reactions typically don’t last long or cause long-term damage.

The foods restricted to both populations is largely the same. Those with a wheat allergy obviously need to avoid all things wheat. There are 27 identified potential wheat allergens, and so any product made with any part of the wheat plant can cause a reaction and is required to be labeled on packages.

A person with gluten intolerance can actually eat some wheat-based foods provided the gluten has been removed from it, but typically will also completely avoid wheat. The gluten intolerant person must also avoid some of the other gluten-containing grains such as barley and rye that are safe for those with a wheat allergy.

Wheat is one of the “Big 8” foods which account for over 90% of all food allergies. However, wheat allergies are estimated to affect only about 0.2-0.5% of the population and are typically outgrown after 3-5 years of age. This means the population with wheat allergies is an even smaller than those with celiac disease, which is estimated at about 1% of US population (including 83% who are undiagnosed).

If you have an actual wheat allergy or celiac disease, it is important for you to know what foods are likely to cause you problems. And this knowledge is equally important if you are preparing foods for someone with one of these conditions, even if you don’t suffer from them yourself. So here are products to avoid for a wheat allergy and one for gluten-intolerance or celiac.

Photo credit: alegri on'

Joshua Tuttle

Josh is the editor at He is a fitness and nutrition enthusiast and is interested in consumer behavior and trends in these markets.'

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