Yes, you’ll need to read every food label. But having a wheat allergy does not mean you or your child can’t enjoy good foods.
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Most cases of wheat allergy affect children under the age of 3, but adults can have a wheat allergy, too. Someone who has a wheat allergy has an allergy to a protein in wheat, which is a type of grain. The proteins in wheat known to cause an allergic reaction are albumin, globulin, gliadin, and gluten.
What Is a Wheat Allergy?
In a true wheat allergy, IgE, or immunoglobulin E, in your body causes the immune system to overreact when you consume a wheat protein. Symptoms of a wheat allergy vary, and can range from hives or eczema to gastrointestinal symptoms (such as vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and pain).
If you think you or your child has a wheat allergy, it is important to see an allergist to confirm the diagnosis. “When someone comes in with what sounds like an IgE-mediated allergy, they should have some skin testing done,” says Julie McNairn, MD, an allergist and immunologist in Cincinnati.
Allergen skin testing can help an allergist determine whether you have an allergy to wheat protein. The tests involve introducing a small amount of the suspected allergen into your skin through a prick or an abrasion. If a small, raised bump develops within a few minutes where the allergen was introduced, you are allergic to the substance.
Living With a Wheat Allergy
People who have a wheat allergy need to “avoid anything containing wheat,” says Dr. McNairn. This includes wheat flours, beer, baking mixes, batter-fried foods, and many processed foods. This can be difficult, as a number of foods, such as ice cream and ketchup, may contain wheat proteins or use wheat flour in their recipe.
Additionally, eating out can be a challenge. Some concerns include:
Cross-contamination of wheat products in shared cooking pans.
Oil used in fried foods that was also used to cook breaded products.
Sauces in which wheat flour may be used.
Meat substitutes, common in Chinese food, that often contain wheat.
You will need to read labels of packaged foods carefully to determine if a product contains wheat. The Food Allergen Labeling & Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requires foods produced after January 2006 to be labeled as containing wheat in the ingredients, just below the ingredient list, or in parentheses after the specific protein.
You may also need to read the label each time, since manufacturers will occasionally change recipes. According to the Food Allergy Initiative, products that list the following as part of their ingredients list contain wheat protein:
Any type of wheat flour (e.g., all-purpose, cake, enriched)
Talk to your allergist to determine whether you can consume the following wheat substitutes: amaranth, arrowroot, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, potatoes, rice, soy, tapioca, and quinoa flour.
Wheat Allergy vs. Gluten Intolerance
People sometimes refer to gluten intolerance, which is also called celiac disease or celiac sprue, as a wheat allergy. But these are separate conditions.
In gluten intolerance, there is an abnormal immune response when gluten is introduced into the small intestine. And while most children will outgrow a wheat allergy by the age of 3, gluten intolerance is a lifelong condition that requires strict avoidance of gluten, which is present in wheat, rye, barley, and their by-products. It is important to distinguish between these conditions, since untreated gluten intolerance can lead to malnutrition, intestinal damage, and other serious health complications.