Wheat is one of the eight most common food allergies in the United States. About 0.4% of children have a wheat allergy. It is not as common for adults, and most children will outgrow wheat allergies by adolescence. The percentage who will outgrow wheat allergy is approximately:
- 29% by age 4
- 56% by age 8
- 65% by age 12
Wheat Allergy Symptoms
Wheat allergies may have a wide variety of symptoms. They include:
- Eczema, hives or other skin rashes
- Itchy, red, swollen, watery eyes (allergic conjunctivitis)
- Abdominal pain, nausea diarrhea and/or vomiting
- Difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing or runny nose.
- Swelling of lips, tongue, or face (Angioedema)
- A severe, systemic allergic reaction (Anaphylaxis)
In addition, people who suffer from exercise-induced anaphylaxis may have anaphylaxis triggered by eating wheat and exercising. In any situation, anaphylaxis is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment.
Another potential trigger can impact bakers or people who work in restaurants who may develop an allergy to inhaled wheat particles as a result of a lot of flour in the air.
Celiac disease is an auto-immune disorder where the body attacks itself when exposed to gluten, a protein found in many grains. People with celiac disease must avoid all grains that contain gluten, including wheat, rye and barley.
Wheat allergy is different from celiac disease in several ways. The symptoms of an allergic reaction to wheat will usually appear in minutes to hours after eating food containing wheat. Celiac disease symptoms are usually GI-related and may take longer to present.
However, gluten-free foods that are safe for people with celiac are also safe for people who are following a wheat-free diet due to the specific food allergy.
Wheat Allergies and Labeling Laws
Because wheat is one of the most common food allergens in the United States, it is covered under the food allergy labeling law (FALCPA). Food manufacturers are required to clearly list wheat on food labels.
The label "gluten-free" is a voluntary label and is not enforced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the same way that allergy labeling is enforced. However, the FDA issued a rule for the definition of a "gluten-free" label that will take effect in 2014. There are also independent testing and rating organizations, such as the Celiac Sprue Association, that give seals of approval to food products that meet their testing standards.
Wheat is often not listed as an ingredient on non-food items such as craft supplies. For example, many children's play doughs contain wheat, as do many types of glue and some cosmetics.
Eating Out with Wheat Allergies
More and more restaurants, including many chain restaurants, are offering gluten-free menus or menu items. Always ask about the ingredients of the item you want to order, and talk to the chef about preventing cross-contamination.
Wheat is a common ingredient in many sauces, condiments and flavorings, and may also be present in food even if it is not visible. For example, you may think Chinese food is safe because it is served with rice, but most soy sauce contains wheat; wheat may be used as a batter or sauce thickener of the main dish.
Eating wheat-free means trying new grains. Luckily, there are now all sorts of breads, pastas and baked goods that are made from non-wheat grains. Grains that are safe for people with wheat allergies include:
- oats, (some oats may be contaminated with wheat, it is best to stick to certified gluten-free oats)
Spelt and kamut are ancient grains that are related to modern wheat and are not safe for people with wheat allergies.
Living with Wheat Allergies
There is no cure for wheat allergies yet. Managing your wheat allergy means avoiding wheat and being prepared for future reactions. If you have a history of severe reactions or your doctor thinks you may have one in the future, your doctor may prescribe an epinephrine auto-injector (commonly called an EpiPen). You will need to carry your auto-injector with you at all times.
Because of the growing market for gluten-free foods, there are more wheat-free products on the market than in the past. Most major grocery stores now have a small gluten-free section, and health food stores have larger selections. Many cities now have gluten-free bakeries. It is now even possible to buy decent gluten-free beer.
NIAID-Sponsored Expert Panel. Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Food Allergy in the United States: Report of the NIAID-Sponsored Expert Panel. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Volume 126, Issue 6, Supplement , Pages S1-S58, December 2010
Wood, R.A. et al.The natural history of wheat allergy. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2009 May;102(5):410-5.