No, gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy are not the same thing. Let's look at these two types of food reaction one at a time, starting with wheat allergy.
In recent years, wheat allergy (WA) has become much better understood than ever before thanks to research in another area of gluten-related problems, namely, celiac disease. What researchers have learned is that WA can take one of several different forms. One of these forms involves classic food allergy, in which certain immune cells along the lining of the digestive tract get activated and produce an immune system response. Short protein fragments (peptides) from wheat are the key participants in WA, and these fragments are specific to wheat (versus other wheat-related grains like barley or rye).
WA can also take the form of WDEIA (wheat-dependent, exercise-induced anaphylaxis). In WDEIA, another specialized group of wheat proteins (called omega-5 gliadins) trigger an unwanted immune system response. Interestingly, this response only occurs when a person exercises within a three-hour period after consumption of wheat. Researchers are not yet certain how often wheat allergy takes this particular form, or why it does so. Yet another type of WA is commonly referred to as "baker's asthma." In this type of wheat allergy, short protein fragments in wheat are actually inhaled and act to block the function of certain enzymes (alpha-amylase enzymes). It is important to note that all forms of WA described above are specific to wheat. Immune system reactions in WA do not appear to be triggered by other wheat-related grains like barley or rye. Like most food allergies, WA can be difficult to identify because its symptoms can vary; they can include digestive tract problems like bloating, cramping, or diarrhea; itching or swelling of the eyes, nose, or throat; and skin rash. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has included wheat as one of the eight major U.S. food allergens and requires identification of wheat either on the ingredient list or on the food label of any wheat-containing food.
Gluten sensitivity is often referred to in research studies as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) since persons diagnosed with celiac disease are also sensitive to gluten. Just like the name suggests, NCGS is not specific to wheat but extends to related grains like rye and barley that can contain some of the same glutenin and gliadin proteins (or protein fragments) found in wheat. In this sense, NCGS is a broader type of condition than WA. However, there are yet other important differences between NCGS and WA. Even though the name "gluten sensitivity" suggests otherwise, researchers believe that gluten proteins cannot be blamed for all of the problems associated with gluten sensitivity. For example, scientists believe that there might be impaired immune system function in gluten-sensitive persons that is not directly related to consumption of gluten proteins. Researchers have also found connections between gluten sensitivity and certain types of carbohydrates present in wheat called FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides disaccharides monosaccharides and polyols). These discoveries also suggest that gluten sensitivity might be a broader and more complicated condition than wheat allergy.
The highest research estimate that we have seen for the occurrence of gluten sensitivity in the U.S. is 6% of the U.S. population. For wheat allergy, the document rate of occurrence is lower, even though wheat allergy has still been ranked as one of the top eight allergy-triggering foods by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Even with inclusion of wheat among the top eight food allergens, however, relatively few persons in the U.S. appear to be affected by either wheat allergy or gluten sensitivity in comparison to the vast number of people who regularly consume wheat, barley, rye, and other grains. U.S. adults currently average about 134 pounds of wheat flour consumption each year—nearly 6 ounces per day! In fact, William Davis, MD, in his Wheat Belly diet and lifestyle program, suggests that by eliminating wheat from a meal plan and greatly reducing overall intake of grains, a person may be likely to lower his or her daily calorie intake by about 400 calories. This predication makes sense to us, due to the fact that six ounces of wheat flour contain even more than 400 calories. We see the question of wheat consumption and its desirability/undesirability as being largely different, however, than the question of wheat allergy or gluten sensitivity. For anyone who suspects an allergic reaction to wheat or a sensitivity to gluten, we recommend follow-up with a healthcare provider with experience in this area to help determine the actual presence of an allergy or sensitivity. Based on research studies, we would expect allergy and sensitivity testing to show negative results for many people who already consume relatively large amounts of wheat or related grains. However, even in the absence of an allergy or sensitivity, a person might decide to lower his or her intake of wheat in a meal plan, and that decision might make good sense. For more information about wheat and grain decision-making, please see our article, Do you consider grains to be a priority food group for healthy eating?
To see the research articles we reviewed in the writing of these articles, see here.