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OK, before we talk about all things gluten, it’s important to know that there is NO SUCH THING as a gluten allergy. No, my friends, you cannot be technically “allergic” to gluten.
In fact, people with celiac disease are NOT allergic to gluten, nor are people with diagnosed gluten sensitivities or a gluten intolerance. No one is “allergic” to gluten.
Why Do People Say They’re Allergic to Gluten?
So this brings me to an interesting question: If a gluten allergy is not real, how come people constantly say they have a “gluten allergy” and how did it become part of our everyday vernacular?
I believe the reason the term “gluten allergy” has become so commonplace is that most people understand the word “allergy.” They know it’s serious and life-threatening, so when someone says they’re “allergic to gluten,” they’re taken seriously from the start. If I were to say, “I have an autoimmune condition,” people are left scratching their heads!
However, when I say “I have a gluten allergy” when placing my food order at a restaurant, the staff immediately understands what I’m trying to communicate to them.
“I have a gluten allergy and need a gluten-free meal,” is very clear, right? Servers get it. Chefs get it. All the guests at your table get it. The wording makes sense to everyone and increases my chances of getting a truly gluten-free meal.
If, however, I told the kid working behind the register at Chick-fil-a, “I have autoimmune condition known as celiac disease that requires me to eat a strictly gluten-free diet,” he’d look at me like I have two heads!
On top of that, unfortunately, if you tell someone you have a “gluten sensitivity,” you may not be taken as seriously as you need to be (even though gluten sensitivity is a real and serious disorder – don’t let misinformed and/or ignorant people tell you otherwise!). I write more about gluten sensitivities in this article, “How Do I Know If I’m Gluten Intolerant?”
Like I said (and it’s worth repeating), you cannot have a gluten allergy. Using the term is purely out of convenience.
Editor Note: OK, before you get upset with me and send me hate mail, please note that I know and understand allergies are very serious conditions. Mind you, gluten sensitivities and autoimmune diseases are also very serious conditions but less understood by the general public. We are working towards gaining understanding and wider acceptance, but it’s undeniable that a lot of people dismiss gluten-free as not a serious treatment option and feel like it’s okay to poke fun of people who follow a gluten-free diet.
Is a Wheat Allergy Real?
While a gluten allergy is not a real condition, a wheat allergy, on the other hand, is a very real condition that affects approximately 0.1 to 0.3 percent of the U.S. population or 900,000 people according to Dr. Alessio Fasano in his book, Gluten Freedom.
Wheat allergies impact far less people than celiac disease and gluten sensitivities. Celiac disease afflicts about one percent of the population and a gluten sensitivity affects about six percent of the population or 20 million Americans.
Wheat, along with barley and rye, contain a protein called gluten. Someone who is allergic to wheat might still be able to eat barley, rye and other gluten-containing products. They only must avoid wheat.
In this article, I discuss the difference between an allergy vs. autoimmune disease vs. food sensitivity or intolerance. These are three very different conditions that share some similar symptoms.
What Is an Allergy?
An allergic reaction occurs when the body’s immune system views a substance as harmful and then it overreacts to it. If you have a true allergy to something in the environment or food supply, your immune system produces an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE).
Some allergies cause annoying but non-life threatening reactions such as watery eyes, itching, sneezing or hives. More serious and troublesome symptoms can be swelling in the mouth, trouble breathing and a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis.
Food allergies are very common and can trigger a harmful immune system response. In fact, more than 170 foods have been known to trigger an allergic reaction in humans, and the most common food allergens are noted as milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and crustacean shellfish – these foods are responsible for most of the serious food allergy reactions in the United States.
According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), up to 15 million Americans have food allergies, including 5.9 million children under the age of 18. This means one in 13 children, or roughly two children in every classroom have a food allergy. About 30 percent of children with food allergies are allergic to more than one food, too.
Unfortunately, food allergies are on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the prevalence of food allergies in children increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, and between 1997 and 2008, the prevalence of peanut or tree nut allergy is believed to have more than tripled in U.S. children.
Because wheat is one of the most common allergen foods in the U.S., it must be disclosed, as required by federal law, on packaged foods that contain wheat. Gluten, however, is not considered an “allergen” (as discussed) so it is not disclosed, by law, on packaged food labels. This means a food can be free from wheat but still contain gluten (Rice Krispies, for example, contains no wheat, yet it contains barley malt, which is gluten).
What is an Autoimmune Disease [and Celiac Disease]?
I have written extensively about autoimmune disease in the past (particularly in my review of The Autoimmune Fix by Dr. Tom O’Bryan). Dr. O’Bryan says autoimmunity occurs when the body attacks itself and causes organ and tissue damage unto itself. Symptoms can begin early in life and are sometimes subtle – joint pain, weight gain, brain fog, gut imbalances, depression, mood disorders and fatigue. These are just some of the symptoms that indicate autoimmune disease is either bubbling or fully present.
Autoimmune disease affects eight percent of the U.S. population or 24 million people – 78 percent of which are women. However, the number of autoimmune sufferers is likely much higher due to the difficulties in diagnosing autoimmune disease.
Celiac disease is classified as an autoimmune disease.
When a person with celiac disease ingests gluten (the “trigger” food), his or her body initiates an immune system attack. A person’s white blood cells produce auto-antibodies (known as tissue transglutaminase or tTg auto-antibodies) that mistakenly attack the lining of the small intestine. This results in intestinal damage and villous atrophy in someone with celiac disease.
The villi that line the small intestine serve an essential role in our digestive system as they soak up nutrients from the food we eat and then help to deliver those nutrients where they need to be to keep one healthy. The villi in someone with celiac disease are completely worn down and look more like a flat surface than a shag carpet. When the villi are destroyed, the small intestine is no longer properly absorbing nutrients and this is why most people with celiac disease suffer from some sort of nutritional deficiency or a disorder related to a nutritional deficiency.
An autoimmune disease, while just as serious as an allergy in many ways, causes damage to the body over time and puts someone at risk for acquiring more serious diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
While an allergic reaction might be a more immediate life-threatening condition (and extremely concerning in cases of anaphylaxis), an autoimmune disease is a slower-to-react yet just as life-threatening condition, one that affects the quality of day-to-day life for those who bear the burden of autoimmune disease.
What is a Gluten Sensitivity or Intolerance?
When someone is sensitive to gluten or gluten intolerant, it means they experience some sort of inflammatory response every time they consume the gluten protein. Unlike people with celiac disease who have villous atrophy upon ingesting gluten, people with a gluten sensitivity have more normal looking and functioning microvilli, albeit their intestines are often inflamed. People with a gluten sensitivity also do not develop auto-antibodies whereas someone with celiac disease would test positive for tTg auto-antibodies via a blood test.
Gluten sensitivity is absolutely a gluten disorder, but it is not considered an autoimmune disease. What I have learned in my studies of gluten spectrum disorders is that unmanaged gluten sensitivity can be just as serious, and comes with a higher risk of premature death, than celiac disease. (Read my article Gluten Sensitivity vs. Celiac Disease for more information on this topic.) Anyone telling you that gluten sensitivity isn’t a serious condition is truly misinformed. The research is there and should not be ignored!
People with a gluten sensitivity can experience similar symptoms to those with celiac disease. Read: 10 Gluten Sensitivity Symptoms [With or Without Celiac Disease]
Again, a gluten sensitivity is not the same as a “wheat allergy” or “celiac disease,” but is still a gluten spectrum disorder that requires strict avoidance of gluten.
A Gluten Allergy Isn’t Real, but…
I hope from this article you now understand that a “gluten allergy” is not a real condition; however, the wording is used to help explain and express the seriousness of one’s gluten-free diet to a server or layman.
The truth is, no one can be allergic to gluten; rather, someone can be allergic to wheat, have celiac disease (an autoimmune condition) or have a gluten sensitivity or intolerance.
All gluten spectrum disorders adversely impact someone’s life and strict adherence to a gluten-free diet (or wheat-free diet for someone with a wheat allergy) is required at all times. A serious allergic reaction can be immediately life-threatening to someone with a wheat allergy, while someone with an autoimmune disease or gluten sensitivity will endure long-term damage that endangers the quality and length of their life over a period of years – even decades.
Despite being three serious conditions that must be managed through a gluten-free diet, there are many important key distinctions between a wheat allergy, an autoimmune disease and a food sensitivity. I hope I was able to shed light on this important topic so you gain greater insight into how these gluten-spectrum disorders work and affect the human body.