Gluten Free & Wheat Free: Are They the Same Thing?

If you have a wheat allergy, you need to strictly avoid wheat in all forms. For people with coeliac disease, avoiding gluten is essential. Wheat contains gluten. So you might assume that it is safe for people with wheat allergy to rely on gluten free labels. This is usually true, but depending on where you live, not everything labelled as “gluten free” is safe for people with wheat allergies.

Wheat crop and blue sky with text overlay "gluten free & wheat free, are they the same thing?"

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What is a wheat allergy?

Wheat allergy is an immune response to food proteins in wheat. Like other food allergies, if you are allergic to wheat you may experience symptoms of an allergic reaction ranging from mild to severe, including anaphylaxis.

Symptoms of wheat allergy

Mild to moderate symptoms of a food allergy include:

  • swelling of lips, face, eyes;
  • hives or welts;
  • tingling mouth;
  • abdominal pain and/or vomiting.

More severe symptoms of food allergy include:

  • difficult/noisy breathing;
  • swelling of tongue;
  • swelling/tightness in throat;
  • difficulty talking and/or hoarse voice;
  • wheeze or persistent cough;
  • persistent dizziness or collapse;
  • pale and floppy (young children).

Foods that contain wheat

People with wheat allergy need to avoid wheat ingredients in food. Some of the common foods that contain wheat include:

  • baked foods, including bread, cakes, biscuits, muffins, pies, pastries and crackers;
  • bran;
  • breadcrumbs and crumbed foods;
  • couscous and pasta;
  • flour (including all purpose, self raising, durum, spelt etc);
  • grains like farro, freekah and semolina;
  • liquorice;
  • pancakes and waffles;
  • pastry;
  • pizza; and
  • wheat bran, wheat gram, wheat sprouts and wheat starch.

Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia has a very helpful Wheat Allergen Card available to download, listing many foods that contain or may contain wheat.

Gluten free wheat ingredients

Yes, there is such a thing as gluten free wheat ingredients.

Highly processed wheat

Some ingredients are derived from wheat but are highly processed. Processing removes all of the gluten, so that the product can be labelled gluten free. Examples of highly processed wheat ingredients include glucose and glucose syrup, dextrose, caramel food colour and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Fortunately people with a wheat allergy can also tolerate these highly processed ingredients.1 In Australia, glucose syrup (with no more than 20 mg/kg detectable gluten) is specifically exempt from the requirement to declare wheat on food labels.2 However always check with your own allergy specialist about the need to avoid any of these ingredients.

Gluten free wheat starch

With the surge in demand for gluten free foods, there are many more gluten free products available worldwide. Some gluten free products do contain gluten free wheat starch. Also known as Codex wheat starch, this is wheat starch processed to sufficiently remove the gluten so that it meets European gluten free labelling requirements (under the European Codex Alimentarius gluten free food standard). This standard allows up to 20 parts per million of gluten. You might see this on food labels as “Codex-approved gluten free wheat starch” or a reference to “certified gluten-free”.

While this ingredient is considered gluten free in many countries, it may still contain wheat. Starch isn’t meant to contain wheat protein, but it is very difficult to completely separate the different components and some wheat protein could remain. It is therefore not safe for people with wheat allergy.

Use of gluten free wheat starch in different countries

Gluten free wheat starch is more commonly used in gluten free foods in Europe. For example, popular European brand Schär uses gluten free wheat starch in its gluten free croissants. Schär is very open about this product being gluten free but not suitable for people with wheat allergy.3

One thing to keep in mind when talking about wheat starch versus wheat flour is that gluten free does not necessarily mean wheat free, and vice versa. Remember, wheat starch is made from the same grain as wheat flour, it just goes through extra processing. This means that people who are intolerant or allergic to wheat – even if they are not sensitive to gluten – could have a negative reaction.

Schär website

The Food and Drug Administration has approved Codex wheat starch for use in the US. DiGiorno gluten free pizza contains gluten free wheat starch, which the company clearly notes is not suitable for people with wheat allergy.

In Australia and New Zealand, strict gluten free labelling requirements mean that products labelled as “gluten free” must have “no detectable gluten”. As a result, you won’t find gluten free wheat starch used in products sold as gluten free in Australia or New Zealand. However, if you buy any gluten free products online from overseas, you should be aware of this ingredient.

Grey background with various gluten free foods and text "is gluten free always wheat free"

Don’t just rely on a free from label

If you have a wheat allergy, it is important that you don’t just look at a “gluten free” description and assume the product is also wheat free. You must read the ingredient labels carefully.

Ingredient labels should still list gluten free wheat starch as “wheat starch” or “starch (from wheat)” and comply with relevant allergen labelling laws for wheat.

Regardless of where you live, it’s good practice to check the list of ingredients and allergy warning labels every time. For packaged foods, get in the habit of checking the ingredients 3 times: when buying, when putting away and when you go to cook or eat.

Avoiding gluten

Gluten free foods usually don’t contain wheat and can be a great source of safe foods for people wheat allergy. However, it doesn’t work in reverse. Wheat is not the only source of gluten in foods. Various other grains including rye, barley and oats contain gluten. Gluten free grain options include rice, corn (maize), soy, buckwheat, millet. sorghum and amaranth. If you need to avoid gluten due to coeliac disease or gluten intolerance, we highly recommend Coeliac Australia or the Coeliac Disease Foundation websites for helpful information about avoiding gluten. (The Coeliac Disease Foundation has a helpful list of worldwide associations too).

References and more information about wheat allergy

If you have a wheat allergy, be sure to have a look at our recipe page. Most of our recipes are wheat and gluten free, or easily adjusted with wheat free ingredients.

Is your child allergic to wheat? Did you know that popular brands of playdough contain wheat? You might like our post about how to make your own allergy free playdough.

For more information about wheat allergy and avoiding wheat containing foods, we recommend the following resources we’ve referred in this post:

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*Disclaimer: Allergy Spot does not provide medical advice. You should always consult a suitably qualified medical practitioner in respect of your own medical conditions, symptoms or concerns. See our Website Terms for more details.

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