I think I am allergic to wheat. How can I find out for sure?

Introduction

Wheat is one of the most common foods in our Western diet. Not only is it found in the breads, baked goods and pastas we consume but it is also a common “hidden” ingredient in many processed foods. Wheat’s ubiquitous nature may be one of the reasons that many people find that they are sensitive to this food (for more detailed information on the general subject of food allergies, please refer to the Food Sensitivity Q+A which gives a great overview of this subject). In this article, we’ll discuss the compounds in wheat that are the suspected culprits of triggering allergic reactions and then review how you can test to see if you do have a wheat allergy.

Compounds that may cause wheat allergies

It turns out that the substances thought to trigger wheat allergy are a matter of great debate. One family of gluten proteins found in wheat, called gliadins, contain pieces of protein that appear to trigger an allergic response in many individuals. But there are also other kinds of proteins in wheat, called lectins, which researchers have linked to wheat allergy. The best studied of these lectins is WGA, or wheat germ agglutinin, and it’s also been linked to many components of allergic response.

Since most wheat is not grown organically, and becomes contaminated with a variety of herbicides and pesticides, it’s important to consider the impact of these residues when thinking about sensitivity reactions to wheat. Wheat is a food that is eaten in large caloric amounts; nearly 20% of the calories in an average U.S. adult meal plan come from non-organic, highly processed flour. In fact, just eliminating these toxic residues through the purchase of organic wheat products, and bringing back in missing nutrients by purchasing 100% whole wheat products, may help individuals to see fewer reactions to this food.

Determining the presence of wheat allergies – the first step

To determine whether you are allergic to wheat, the first step that you should take is to write down everything you eat for at least one week. This will allow you to begin to identify all of the sources of wheat in your diet. Since wheat is found in many different products, it is important to note all of the ingredients of any packaged food item that you eat during this time frame. After you have done this, you should look over your list carefully, and see how many wheat-containing products appear in your list.

How to identify wheat containing-products – the obvious sources

Flour, white flour, whole wheat flour, semolina, durum, triticale, couscous, tabouli, bran, modified food starch, gluten, bulgar, cake flour, pastry flour, graham, semolina, wheat bran, wheat germ, and wheat starch are all synonymous with “wheat”. Additionally, remember that most noodles, whether they are spaghetti or macaroni, and most baked products and desserts are wheat-based.

How to identify wheat containing-products – the not so obvious sources

In addition to the foods mentioned above, there are also other foods that you wouldn’t think contained wheat, but which actually do. Table 1 contains a list of foods that may feature wheat as a “hidden” ingredient. If you eat any of the foods on this list, you should check their ingredients labels, since they may just contain wheat. (We know what you are thinking: it’s a long list! But to determine whether you have a wheat allergy, it is really important to be thorough and determine all of the sources of wheat to which you are exposed).

Table 1

Processed foods that may contain wheat
Baked beans
Baking powder (some)
Biscuits
Bouillon cubes and extracts
Canned fish
Cheese sauces or spreads
Cloudy lemonade and ginger beer
Fruit pie fillings and jams
Creamed or scalloped potatoes
Creamed or scalloped vegetables
Creamed products
Egg dishes thickened with flour
Hotdogs
Luncheon meats
Malted milk and drinks
Meat and poultry containing flour
Meat tenderizers
Mustard and other condiments
Mustard powder
Pre-molded hamburgers
Pudding
Salad dressings
Sauce and gravy mixes
Sausage
Soup mixes and bases
Soy sauce
Stewed fruits
Tomato sauces

Testing for wheat allergy - the elimination stage

If, when you review your diet diary, you note that wheat-containing foods are found in your daily meal plan, and particularly if they are found several times in your daily meal plan, the next step to figuring out whether you are allergic is to eliminate wheat from your diet. This should be done for two weeks.

You may want to work with a healthcare practitioner skilled in nutrition while conducting this part of the test since it is really important to continue to achieve a balanced, fully nourishing meal plan during your wheat elimination. Otherwise, you won’t know when you bring wheat back into your diet whether it’s the wheat that’s causing the problem or the fact that you have experienced a lack of nutrients from having eaten an unbalanced diet.

Testing for wheat allergy - the challenge stage

After two weeks of not eating any wheat products, it’s time to do a wheat challenge and determine whether or not you are sensitive. You should do the challenge with an organically produced, 100% whole wheat product, like organic 100% whole wheat spaghetti noodles or organic cream of whole wheat.

Eat one cup’s worth of either of these foods in a single day. For the next two days, go back to your wheatless meal-plan and wait to see whether any of the problems that you were attributing to the wheat return. If you experience no discomfort, a wheat allergy is unlikely. If the problems you previously experienced return, you may either want to stay away from wheat for an indefinite amount of time, or wait 3-4 days and try the challenge again to see if it produces the same result.

Practical tips

If you find out that you are allergic to wheat, you may want to work with a nutritionally-oriented healthcare practitioner who can help you with ideas for wheat-free eating and cooking. As more and more people realize that they are sensitive to wheat, food manufacturers have begun to create wheat-free alternatives to many food products. A trip to a natural foods market will definitely inspire you as you come to understand that you can still have an incredibly rich, versatile and delicious diet even if it does not include wheat products.

References

Burk, K.; Melms, A.; Schulz, J. B., and Dichgans, J. Effectiveness of intravenous immunoglobin therapy in cerebellar ataxia associated with gluten sensitivity. Ann Neurol. 2001 Dec; 50(6):827-8.

Hopkins, T. L. and Harper, M. S. Lepidopteran peritrophic membranes and effects of dietary wheat germ agglutinin on their formation and structure. Arch Insect Biochem Physiol. 2001 Jun; 47(2):100-9.

Palosuo, K.; Alenius, H.; Varjonen, E.; Koivuluhta, M.; Mikkola, J.; Keskinen, H.; Kalkkinen, N., and Reunala, T. A novel wheat gliadin as a cause of exercise-induced anaphylaxis. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 1999 May; 103(5 Pt 1):912-7.

Palosuo, K.; Varjonen, E.; Kekki, O. M.; Klemola, T.; Kalkkinen, N.; Alenius, H., and Reunala, T. Wheat omega-5 gliadin is a major allergen in children with immediate allergy to ingested wheat. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2001 Oct; 108(4):634-8.

Varjonen, E.; Vainio, E., and Kalimo, K. Antigliadin IgE--indicator of wheat allergy in atopic dermatitis. Allergy. 2000 Apr; 55(4):386-91. .

This page was updated on: 2004-11-18 21:20:13
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation