NDSU Extension Service - Mercer County

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The Great Grain Mystery

celiac disease, wheat allergies, gluten intolerance

Submitted by Dena Kemmet, Extension Agent/Family and Consumer Sciences

The Great Grain Mystery

How are celiac disease, wheat allergies and gluten intolerance different?

The first suspect is celiac disease. It’s is an autoimmune disease that is developed partly due to genetics and is triggered by environmental factors. The body reacts to the protein gluten by attacking its own organs.

The intestinal wall is damaged when those with celiac disease consume gluten. This damage causes the body to absorb fewer nutrients. Unpleasant digestive symptoms such as abdominal cramps, diarrhea, nausea and bloating may occur because of the damaged intestine. Celiac disease also may show itself in the form of an itchy rash called dermatitis herpetiformis.

Those with celiac disease must eliminate gluten from their diet. Gluten is found in wheat, rye and barley. Celiac patients also must avoid oats unless they are labeled as pure oats. That’s because most oats have been processed on equipment that also has been used to process gluten-containing grains.

If you have celiac disease, you also must be careful to avoid gluten in hidden sources, such as toothpaste, soy sauce, gravies and medications. People with celiac disease can seek help with food choices through a dietitian and general health advice concerning this disease from their physician.

Wheat allergies are the next area we’ll investigate. Food allergies trigger an immune response in the body. The body recognizes a certain substance as a foreign invader and begins fighting it in an aggressive manner. This attack is called an allergic reaction.

An allergic reaction can be deadly or cause very serious health complications. The only way to prevent an allergic reaction is strict avoidance of the food. A wheat allergy would fall into this category.

Those who suffer from wheat allergies may experience hives; itching; swelling of skin, lips and throat; and difficulty breathing. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.

People with a wheat allergy can enjoy rye and barley products with no harmful symptoms. However, they must avoid wheat and wheat products, as well as foods that may have come into contact with wheat. Food labels must state if the food product contains wheat, so those with a wheat allergy should read labels carefully.

The final subject in this mystery is gluten intolerance. A food intolerance is not a food allergy. Unlike food allergies, food intolerances do not involve the immune system. Instead, the body cannot digest part of a certain food or nutrient. Lactose intolerance is an example.

A person with lactose intolerance may experience abdominal pain, diarrhea, gas and bloating when consuming certain dairy products. Those with lactose intolerance are not allergic to milk; they simply cannot digest the lactose (natural sugar found in milk). Some people are born with intolerances, but you can develop food intolerances later in life.

Our investigation has revealed that celiac disease, wheat allergies and gluten intolerance are similar in many ways but are very different conditions.

Talk to your doctor, the ultimate sleuth, if you are experiencing symptoms.

Sources: Leah Haak, NDSU dietetic intern and Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension food and nutrition specialist

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