Intolerances to wheat and gluten are both relatively common problems, but they are distinct conditions and should not be confused.
Let’s start with the basics. Wheat is a cereal, a grain cultivated worldwide as a basic food source. It is, in fact, the most widely grown and traded food crop in the world, and on a global scale, the second most produced food crop after maize. Most types of bread are made from wheat but it is also found in many other contemporary food products, including breakfast cereals, pasta, pizza, pastries, pancakes, scones and cakes.
Meanwhile, gluten is a major constituent of wheat and other cereals such as barley and rye. This dense blend of proteins is produced by wheat to store its seeds. It is a widely used ingredient in a range of processed foods, providing a chewy, elastic texture and also acting as a stabilising agent. Besides bread, you will find gluten in imitation meat products for vegetarians, beer, soya sauce, ice cream and ketchup, amongst many other products. Some baked goods made from wheat flour are fortified with additional gluten to provide greater volume along with additional stability and texture.
Types of intolerance
A food intolerance – also known as a food sensitivity – is a condition in which particular foods or drinks trigger a range of uncomfortable physical symptoms. They are centred in the digestive system, unlike the allergies with which they are frequently confused. Allergies involve the immune system and at their most serious, can be life-threatening.
Food intolerances can be triggered by different factors in a person’s life. They may have a straightforward genetic cause, or they may be brought on by stress or an overall poor state of health. The person may simply have consumed too much of the problematic food, leaving their body struggling to digest it.
The difference between wheat and gluten intolerance
Since gluten is a major constituent of wheat, these two types of intolerance are sometimes – understandably – confused. So what exactly is the difference between wheat and gluten intolerance?
Put simply, someone with a wheat intolerance has difficulty digesting wheat as a whole. Typical symptoms include:
- Stomach pains
- Skin conditions like eczema, acne, rashes and itching
- Joint pains
- Feeling disportionately tired
But such symptoms, which vary in intensity from person to person, will only be triggered by wheat. If the sufferer substitutes other cereals such as barley, maize or rye, they should have no problems and continue to feel well.
The situation is a little more complex with gluten intolerance. If you struggle to digest gluten, then you are also wheat intolerant, by definition. However, your symptoms may also be triggered by other grains containing gluten.
As you might expect, typical gluten intolerance symptoms overlap with those of wheat intolerance. They include bloating, stomach pain, joint pain and fatigue, but also:
It is important to understand the difference between these conditions for one simple reason: if you have gluten intolerance the range of foods you will need to avoid or minimise is broader.
If you suspect you may have a problem with wheat or gluten, monitor your food intake and try to establish a connection between the onset of digestive symptoms and particular foods. Remember that any reactions you experience may, unhelpfully, not occur straightway. They may be delayed for hours or even days.
It is also a good idea to talk to your doctor. They may recommend medical tests to rule out the possibility of coeliac disease, a more serious variant of gluten intolerance, which can cause significant health problems.
Your doctor may also be able to refer you to a nutritionist for intolerance testing, and that can be a handy way to establish whether you are sensitive to wheat or gluten. But the wait time for an appointment with a nutritionist can be long.
One quicker solution is a self-administered test applied at home. Send in a swab and you will receive a detailed breakdown of any sensitivities you may have developed.
The good news is that the range of wheat- and gluten-free products available on supermarket shelves is larger and tastier than ever, And the even better news? You can outgrow either intolerance if you avoid the triggers for a while. Muffins may not be off the menu forever!
Written by Bev Walton, BSc Nutritional Science
I achieved a First-Class Honours degree in BSc Nutritional Science, Nutrition Sciences from the University of Reading and now have over 35 years experience in all types of cuisine, dietary plans, recipe development, health and nutrition. I have been writing for over 10 years for magazines and websites as well as ghostwriting for ebooks, Kindle and fully published books. I’m also a proud member of the Guild of Food writers.