There’s an important difference between products that are labeled wheat free vs. gluten free. In this article, I’ll explain how a product could be labeled gluten free but still contain wheat, and how a product could be labeled wheat free but still contain gluten. This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosures.
Did you know that a product could be labeled gluten free, but still contain wheat? And the reverse is true too; a product could be labeled wheat free, but still contain gluten.
In this article, I’ll help you understand how this is possible, as well as share some strategies to help keep you safe.
How “Wheat Free” Doesn’t Equal “Gluten Free”
If a product is labeled wheat free, it means the product doesn’t contain any wheat. Wheat is considered one of the top 8 allergens in the world and approximately 2.4 million people in the US have a wheat allergy according to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). However, just because a product is wheat free, doesn’t automatically mean it’s gluten free.
In fact, a product can still contain gluten even if it’s wheat free because gluten is found in more than just wheat; it’s also found in barley, rye and sometimes oats. A product may not contain wheat, but it absolutely could contain barley, rye or oats.
For example, Rice Krispies are wheat free, yet they contain barley malt, which is not gluten free. Even barley is technically wheat free!
How “Gluten Free” Doesn’t Equal “Wheat Free”
A product labeled “gluten free” means the product abides by the FDA’s gluten-free labeling laws, meaning it must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, a maximum threshold set by the FDA. It also does not contain any gluten ingredients, which are found in wheat, rye, barley and sometimes oats.
However, some products still contain wheat and are labeled gluten free, including:
These products contain gluten-free wheat starch where the gluten protein was removed. Because the gluten has been processed to be removed, the FDA says these products can be safely labeled “gluten free” if the gluten has been removed and the product has been tested to contain less than 20 ppm of gluten.
I even indepently tested several of these products for gluten with my Nima Sensor, and both came back gluten free (a smiley face means no gluten found).
Another product that is technically gluten free but may contain wheat remnants is distilled vinegar as the vinegar may have been distilled from a gluten grain. Vinegar is found in many condiments, like ketchup.
Distillation removes the gluten protein, making it safe for people with celiac disease to consume; however, while the product is technically gluten free, it may still contain wheat. Individuals with a wheat allergy should look for vinegars distilled from non-wheat grains like corn or use apple cider vinegar, which is derived from apples.
Similarly, distilled alcohol, such as whisky made from wheat or rye, would be technically considered gluten free even if derived from wheat, similar to how distilled vinegar is technically gluten free.
Feel Sick After Eating Gluten-Free Wheat?
A lot of people report feeling ill after consuming gluten-free wheat starch, and here’s why this might be happening.
First, people with wheat allergies should not consume any product that contains wheat, including gluten-free wheat starch and products where the gluten is removed but were originally derived from wheat (vinegar, alcohol, etc.).
Second, people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), which really should be called non-celiac wheat sensitivity (NCWS), may be reacting to other components of the wheat plant, not just the gluten protein. More than 18 million people, or six percent of the U.S. population, suffer from NCGS/NCWS.
This means most people with “gluten sensitivity” actually have “wheat sensitivity” and their issue is with multiple components of wheat, not just the gluten protein. This means, for all intents and purposes, people with gluten sensitivity (aka wheat sensitivity) should avoid all products made with wheat.
This blood test will tell you which components of wheat cause your body to make antibodies. You may be surprised to see that your body is reacting to more than just the gluten protein.
Many people with celiac disease, including myself, are not bothered by gluten-free wheat starch. Why? One reason might be that people with celiac disease react solely to the gluten protein, not other components of wheat. That said, I generally avoid wheat as much as possible, just to be safe, with some exceptions.
The Bottom Line
A product can contain gluten but be wheat free, and it can be wheat free but contain gluten. It’s important to know how gluten and wheat affect your body, and read labels carefully to sniff out products that don’t work for you.
If you react to products that contain wheat, but don’t have celiac disease, you might have non-celiac wheat sensitivity and may be reacting to other components of wheat. To know for sure, I recommend getting tested for a wheat sensitivity with the Wheat Zoomer test, which will tell you what components of wheat causes a reaction in your body.
If you have celiac disease, you can consume gluten-free labeled products that contain wheat starch, but you should avoid products labeled “wheat free” – unless also labeled “gluten free” – because they may contain barley, rye or oats. Read labels carefully and eat in a way that is good for you.