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Allergy to Wheat and other Grains

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Wheat is a major component of our western diet. A few years ago, anyone excluding wheat faced a difficult task trying to find alternatives.  Now there is much more awareness and consideration into special diets.

Wheat is part of the grass family Triticeae. Many people report reactions to wheat, but not all reactions are true allergy. The most common reactions are:

  • Immediate type allergy to wheat
  • Delayed allergy reactions to wheat,
  • Delayed type allergy to gluten, known as Coeliac Disease
  • Intolerance to wheat

Immediate type allergy to wheat

True, immediate-type, wheat allergy is caused by an IgE reaction to one or more of the proteins found in the wheat grain. Wheat contains four types of protein:

  • Globulins
  • Albumins
  • Glutenins
  • Gliadins

Allergic reactions to wheat and other cereals are most common in infants and usually resolve within the first few years of life. Symptoms of wheat allergy (IgE mediated) may include rhinitis, asthma, urticaria, angioedema and conjunctivitis. Patients may also develop loose faeces, abdominal pain and worsening of eczema (which tend to occur within a few of hours of eating wheat or other cereals to which an individual is allergic to).

Some people only get symptoms to wheat after exercise.  These reactions are often quite severe in nature. This is known as exercise-induced anaphylaxis to wheat. Symptoms, typically asthma-like, have also been reported in people working in bakeries, due to inhaling flour.

Wheat and cereal allergy is occasionally seen for the first time in adults. Many suffer from allergic rhinitis to grass pollen (hay fever) as well.

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Delayed allergic reactions to wheat

Some children with eczema will be able to eat wheat-based foods without any obvious immediate reaction, but go on to develop significant worsening of their skin symptoms, usually within 24-48 hours.

Occasionally delayed reactions occur after the food is eaten regularly over several days, resulting in eczema or sometimes diarrhoea, or poor weight gain. In this situation, skin prick allergy testing is often negative and the diagnosis rests on temporary elimination from the diet followed by deliberate food challenges under medical supervision.

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Coeliac Disease

Coeliac disease is a lifelong intolerance to gliaden, part of the gluten proteins that are found in the grain of wheat, rye and barley. Gluten gives elasticity to baked goods and the ‘chewy' texture of many breads and products.

People with coeliac disease have antibodies to gliadin which cause an immune reaction resulting in damage to the small intestine.  The antibodies which are involved are a different class to the IgE antibody that causes classical food allergy.

Symptoms of coeliac disease vary considerably from person to person, and include:

  • stomach pain, abdominal cramps, nausea and bloating
  • altered bowel habit: often diarrhoea but sometimes constipation
  • low energy and tiredness
  • mouth ulcers
  • a severe type of skin rash, called dermatitis herpetiformis
  • poor weight gain in children; weight loss in some adults
  • joint and bone pain, with or without osteoporosis
  • infertility and repeated miscarriages
  • nerve symptoms (such as pins-and-needles) which are thought to be due to the inflammation causing vitamin deficiencies

There are a number of blood tests which can be used to help diagnose Coeliac disease. Skin tests cannot be used to look for the antibody in Coeliac disease.

Strict adherence to a gluten-free diet brings complete resolution of symptoms. For more information, Coeliac UK have an extensive website which can be found at www.coeliac.org.uk, as well as a helpline on 0845 305 2060.

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Wheat (gluten) intolerance

Wheat intolerance differs from coeliac disease in that it is a poorly defined set of symptoms which vary considerably from one affected person to another. Symptoms tend to include abdominal discomfort, nausea, tiredness, bloating and altered bowel habit. It is not caused by an immune reaction, and while the symptoms can be very unpleasant, it cannot cause life-threatening reactions or consequences unlike true wheat allergies.

People with wheat intolerance will still experience adverse symptoms from gluten free products, as the remaining part of the wheat will be affecting them. They may, or may not, be able to eat rye, barley and oats, that are part of the wheat family and, as with many other food intolerances, may be able to reintroduce wheat back into the diet after a period of elimination.

Sensitivity to wheat (and gluten) can also produce symptoms in some individuals which means they have to avoid these substances. For a wheat free diet, you will need to make sure you check all ingredient labels (be aware of hidden wheat which can be found in many convenience products such as ready meals, sauces, etc.) Due to customer demand and increased need, there are many ranges available in supermarkets and health food shops which include wheat free flours /cakes /biscuits/frozen foods. This has made a valuable contribution and extended many peoples' choices enabling them to adapt recipes and use alternative flours and products.  Wheat free cooking is a challenge.  However with practice and trial and error, it can become easier!

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Foods containing, or possibly containing, wheat

Bread and baked foods

All loaves, including pumpernickel, and rolls unless specifically stated; many "rye" and "corn" loaves contain some wheat; pitta, crumpets, muffins, tortillas, and tacos (should be corn but mostly wheat in UK), doughnuts, cakes, cookies, biscuits, crackers, croutons, packet snacks, rusks, waffles, pancakes, crepes, pizzas, pretzels, breadsticks, communion wafers, pasta, pastry, Yorkshire pudding, suet pudding, and many other puddings.


Most cereals will contain some wheat. The exceptions are porridge oats, corn flakes, rice krispies and granola. NB. always read the labels.

Flour and pasta

All of these will contain some wheat unless stated to be wheat free or buckwheat, which is not from the wheat family.

Meat and Fish

Burgers, rissoles, salami, sausages, corned beef, luncheon meat, liver-sausage, continental sausages, pates, meat and fish pastes and spreads, ham, fish and scotch eggs coated with breadcrumbs.

Vegetable products

Vegetable pates and spreads, vegetables coated in breadcrumbs, e.g. onion rings, vegetables tempura, tinned beans, (also tinned spaghetti, often grouped with vegetables), soups and tinned and packet snack or ready prepared foods.

Sauces and condiments

Gravy, packet and jar and bottled sauces, casserole and "ready-meal" mixes, stock cubes and granules, ready prepared and powdered mustard, stuffing, baking powder, monosodium glutamate, some spice mixes (check label).


Most puddings, pastry, yogurts containing cereal, ice cream, pancakes, cheesecakes and others with a biscuit base.


Malted milk, chocolate, Ovaltine and other powered drinks. Beer, ale, stout, lager, Pils lager, whisky, malt whisky, gin, most spirits and many wines.


Liquorice, chocolate, chocolate bars and most wrapped bars. Other sweets (check labels).


Many prescribed and over the counter drugs contain wheat. Check with your pharmacist. Do not stop prescribed medication without discussing with your doctor.


Glue on labels and postage stamps.

Sometimes, a food label may not specify wheat but another form of wheat product:

  • Durum wheat, spelt (triticum spelta), kamut (triticum poloncium)
  • Couscous
  • Bran, wheat bran, wheat germ, wheat gluten
  • Farina
  • Rusk
  • Semolina, durum wheat semolina
  • Flour, wholewheat flour, wheat flour, wheat starch
  • Starch, modified starch, hydrolysed starch, food starch, edible starch
  • Vegetable starch, vegetable gum, vegetable protein
  • Cereal filler, cereal binder, cereal protein.

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Alternatives to wheat

Cereal & grain

Maize (corn), maize(corn) flour, potato, potato flour, rice, rice flour, Soya beans, Soya flour, millet, buckwheat, sago, tapioca, quinoa, sorghum, arrowroot, gram (chickpea) flour, lentil flour. Chickpeas, beans and lentils are good fillers and can be added to soup.

Wheat-free pasta is available in large supermarkets and health food stores.

Baking powder

Bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar.

Meat & fish

All fresh and frozen meats and fish without coatings.

Dairy & Eggs

Milk, cream, butter, margarine, eggs and unprocessed cheese.


Rice, sago or tapioca puddings, jellies, sorbets, gelatine or vegegel based desserts.

Seasonings, sauces & condiments

Pure spices, salt, freshly ground pepper, French mustard. Home-made mayonnaise and dressings. Sauces prepared with cornflour or other alternative flour.


Last updated: March 2012

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