Wheat allergy affects less than 1 per cent of the UK population but can be fatal. Follow this simple advice, and your wheat-free diet will be varied, nutritious – and manageable.
Allergic reactions to wheat most often occur in infancy, and are usually grown out of by the age of three. Wheat allergy is a reaction to the proteins found in wheat grain. The immune system reacts to the food as an invader and produces antibodies against it. Wheat allergy symptoms include asthma, sneezing, itching, rashes, watery eyes, runny nose, coughing, hay fever, headaches, nausea, digestive problems, swollen limbs or general aches and pains. Some people may also have tummy problems and worsening of eczema. Reactions can also be severe and dangerous, and include anaphylaxis. A wheat allergy can be diagnosed by a skin prick test.
Is it coeliac disease?
A wheat allergy should not be confused with a wheat intolerance or coeliac disease. Coeliac disease, which affects the small intestine, is a serious, lifelong autoimmune disease. Wheat intolerance has a poorly defined set of symptoms that vary from one person to another. Food intolerance symptoms include tummy upsets, nausea, tiredness and bloating – and those with wheat intolerance may be able to consume some wheat without any symptoms. Those with a wheat allergy or with coeliac disease must live wheat-free. Gluten-free products are not suitable for wheat allergy or intolerance sufferers because the remaining part of the wheat will still affect them.
Where to look for wheat
The following food items do, or could, contain wheat: bread, cakes, biscuits, pasta, flour, cereals, processed meat products including sausages and burgers, pâtés, spreads, anything in breadcrumbs, tinned beans and spaghetti, gravy, stock cubes, powdered mustard, stuffing, ice-cream, pancakes, anything with a biscuit base or added cereals, baking powder and MSG, drinks such as malted milk, hot chocolate and Ovaltine, and alcoholic drinks including beer, most spirits and many wines. Bear these ingredients in mind when eating out – and ask staff for guidance.
Different forms of wheat
A lot of fresh food – fish, meat, fruit and veg – is naturally wheat-free. You can look for specific wheat-free labels on packaged foods, but to make sure your diet is completely wheat-free and varied you must get used to reading all food labels. To give you an idea of what to look for, the following ingredients are a form of wheat product: durum wheat, spelt, Kamut, couscous, bran, wheat bran, wheatgerm, wheat gluten, farina, rusk, semolina, starch (modified, hydrolised, edible and vegetable), vegetable gum, vegetable protein and cereal filler, binder and protein. All should be avoided. Wheat alternatives to look for include products made with maize (corn), potato, rice, soya, millet, buckwheat, sago, tapioca, quinoa, sorghum, gram (chickpea) and lentil. Ingredients such as arrowroot, gelatine, Vege-Gel, cornflour, bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar are also wheat-free.
Finally, remember to avoid cross-contamination with wheat products by using separate prep, cooking and storage areas and utensils (yes, this even includes your toaster, so buy two or use toaster bags!). Outside the home, avoid buffets and foods on mixed displays for this reason.
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