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The Difference Between Wheat Free & Gluten Free

By Erica Kannall

Wheat allergies are one of the eight most common food allergies that exist. Gluten-intolerance and celiac disease are also prevalent. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, at least 1 percent of the population suffers with celiac disease and about 18 million Americans have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The symptoms may look similar with these conditions, so see your health care provider for a proper diagnosis and recommendation of a wheat-free or gluten-free diet.

Definition of Wheat-Free

A wheat-free food simply doesn't contain the grain wheat. Some foods, such as wheat bread, pasta and cereal, obviously contain wheat. Other ingredients contain sources of wheat that are harder to identify. Read the ingredient list of all foods before eating to see if they contain wheat, bulgur, couscous, flour, farina, kamut, semolina, triticale or wheat germ. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires companies to label wheat in foods. Look for the word "wheat" in parenthesis after an ingredient or a statement at the end of the ingredient list saying "Contains Wheat."

Definition of Gluten-Free

A gluten-free food doesn't contain the protein gluten, which is found in the grains wheat, rye and barley. For this reason, all gluten-free foods are also wheat-free. However, a wheat-free food may still contain gluten from rye or barley. It's important to read food labels carefully when eating a gluten-free diet. If you see anything indicating wheat in the product, then it's not gluten-free. Also, be on the lookout for ingredients derived from barley and rye, such as beer, malt and modified food starch. If you're in doubt, eat only foods whose label clearly states that the food is gluten-free.

When to Follow These Diets

If you have a diagnosed wheat allergy, you need to follow a wheat-free diet. When you ingest wheat, your body mounts an immune response to wheat and you may experience side effects such as rashes, hives, itching, swelling, trouble breathing or fainting. If you have celiac disease or a gluten-intolerance, you need to avoid all forms of gluten including wheat. In celiac disease, an immune reaction occurs in your intestines when you eat gluten and symptoms may include abdominal cramping, gas, diarrhea, anemia, fatigue, depression and migraine headaches.

Other Considerations

You can avoid both wheat and gluten easily with a few dietary modifications. Eating a whole-food based diet helps you avoid these grains. Stick with meats, dairy, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and gluten-free whole grains, such as brown rice and quinoa. Over time, you'll get more comfortable identifying gluten-free and wheat-free foods and will select safe foods with confidence. Always be sure to communicate your food allergies and intolerances clearly when eating out of the home. Even if a menu item appears to be gluten-free, ask first to avoid accidentally ingesting gluten.

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