The Difference Between Gluten Intolerance, Celiac Disease, and Wheat Allergy - Bob's Red Mill Blog
The Difference Between Gluten Intolerance, Celiac Disease, and Wheat Allergy

The Difference Between Gluten Intolerance, Celiac Disease, and Wheat Allergy

We know, right? So confusing. Is there a difference between celiac disease and gluten intolerance? Is gluten intolerance even a real thing? If you have celiac disease, aren’t you allergic to wheat? Why so many ways to say the same thing?

The thing is, they aren’t the same thing. Gluten intolerance is different from celiac disease and both are different from a wheat allergy. We get this question a lot, so we want to break it down in grain plain and simple terms. Let me start with my credentials, or more accurately, lack thereof. I’m neither a doctor nor a scientist. If you need medical advice, definitely talk to a doctor. If you need more info about protein, molecules, or our bodies’ cells, check out PubMed for scholarly articles on these subjects.

The credentials I do have, however, are all three of the following diagnoses: celiac disease (14 years ago), wheat allergy (8 years ago), and oat allergy (2 years ago). This post is coming from someone who lives with a gluten free diet and is written like I would tell it to my friends, family, coworkers, and people I meet at social gatherings who wonder why I’m not partaking in the canapés.

If you’re starting at Gluten Question Numero Uno, you’re currently asking “What is Gluten?” Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. (It is often in oats too–not inherently, but rather, because of cross-contamination at the field, farm, storage, transportation, or production levels.)

What is gluten intolerance? Difficult to diagnose but it is a real thing. Also called non-celiac gluten intolerance. Simply, it means that your body doesn’t do well when you eat gluten but you don’t have a blood test or biopsy to substantiate the claim. I’ve heard it said that because gluten is such a large protein, it’s taxing on your body to break it down, so you’re working harder for your nutrients. Some people feel that going on a gluten free diet and opting for gluten free foods makes them feel more energized and more alert with decreased belly discomfort, seasonal allergy symptoms, headaches, and more. Gluten can cause inflammation in one’s body, and that person might say they are gluten intolerant or have gluten sensitivity. Someone with gluten intolerance might use an enzyme supplement to help their bodies break down the gluten protein if they choose to eat foods with gluten.

What is celiac disease? A genetic autoimmune disease triggered by ingesting gluten. What does that mean?

  • Genetic: you’re born with it
  • Autoimmune disease: your body attacks itself with its own immune system!
  • Ingesting: eating
  • Gluten: that pesky protein mentioned above

Other names for the disease include celiac sprue, coeliac disease, non-tropical sprue, and gluten sensitivity enteropathy. There’s no cure for celiac disease (yet!) but it can be managed with a totally gluten free diet. That means no “cheating” or sneaking and eating gluten. It means even a little bit is not okay. It means cross contamination needs to be avoided. It's more than an intolerance, so gluten enzyme supplements are not a viable option for managing the disease.

What happens when you have celiac disease? It’s a complicated process with lots of science behind it. In very basic terms, the body does not know how to properly react to the gluten protein and instead of just breaking it down like any other protein, an immune response signal is sent to the brain and the body unfortunately attacks the healthy cells of the villi in the small intestines. Flashback to high school biology for anyone who forgot: villi are the finger-like projections in the intestine that increase surface area for nutrient absorption. When someone with celiac disease eats gluten on an ongoing basis (i.e. before diagnosis,) the wall of their small intestine smooths out, which means the villi are terribly damaged and the much smaller interior surface area means much fewer nutrients absorbed, thus the patient suffers from malabsorption.

Which is why celiac disease is often overlooked for dianosis! When your body doesn’t have enough nutrients, anything can go wrong. Some patients suffer from gastrointestinal symptoms and discomfort such as bloating, diarrhea, and flatulence and abdominal pain. Others have mental or emotional symptoms like inability to concentrate or irritability. Women may find difficulty with fertility or early osteoporosis. Without specific, telling symptoms, sometimes doctors aren’t sure where to start in the diagnosis. I was misdiagnosed with asthma before it was discovered that I had celiac disease!

What is wheat allergy? It's different from celiac disease, but is also an immune response. In allergies, the immune system does not attack healthy cells of the body like it does with autoimmune diseases, but it responds to allergenic proteins with a chemical called histamine, sending a cascade of signals to the brain calling for protection of the body. Allergic reactions vary greatly in their severity and symptoms, and many are similar to the symptoms lots of folks experience with seasonal or environmental allergies. Mild symptoms might include a runny nose, a few sneezes, or a bit of an itchy throat. For people with mild reactions, an oral dose of an over-the-counter antihistamine drug is usually sufficient treatment. On the other hand, some allergic responses are very severe, even life-threatening, including anaphylaxis, which happens quickly after exposure to an allergen and escalates rapidly, often restricting breathing of the person experiencing the reaction. Anaphylaxis is combated with an injection of epinephrine, usually followed by a few days of steroids to help prevent a secondary reaction. Epinephrine is a neurotransmitter, naturally made by the body, which counteracts the signals sent by histamine. A synthetic version is available in auto-injectors so people with food allergies can administer their own life-saving medicine before going to the hospital. A food allergy is also a no-cheat zone: no cross-contamination and just a little exposure is too much exposure.

Now, there are a few “rare birds” (the doctor’s words, not mine) like myself who have both celiac disease and a wheat allergy. Before I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I ate pizza, noodles, and wheat bread just like everyone else without any allergic reaction. Once I was diagnosed, of course wheat was eliminated from my diet. Six years later or so, I learned from a few unfortunate cross-contamination episodes (ultimately resulting in a trip the emergency room) that I had developed an allergy to wheat. The explanation I got from the doctor who later tested to confirm the allergy was that once your body hasn’t been exposed to an allergen for quite some time, it then forgets how to recognize the protein, seeing it now as an intruder and a threat. Two years ago I was enjoying gluten free oats and had an allergic reaction. Back to the doctor, and another test later, I left with yet another diagnosis, this time an oat allergy. Sigh.

There you have the layman’s terms differences of gluten intolerance, celiac disease, and wheat allergy. I encourage you to check out the many valuable resources available online to answer more in-depth question you may have about the specific reactions that take place in the body in each of these scenarios. If you think you may have celiac disease or another dietary need, share your symptoms with your doctor.

Lucky for those with gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, and wheat allergy, we at Bob’s Red Mill are very careful with our gluten free products. See here for more on our gluten free promise. Back when I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2002, I was living in Ohio and I was told that Bob’s Red Mill was the brand I could trust. Now I am proudly sitting here at the Mill directly above the gluten free facility I have known, loved, and trusted for fourteen years! Look for these trusty symbols on our packages to know that our gluten free products have been processed and tested in our dedicated gluten free facility:

Gluten Free Icon // Bob's Red Mill

Gluten Free Icon // Bob's Red Mill

 

21 Comments

  1. Kim
    I also have celiac disease AND wheat & oat allergy! Before I was diagnosed (2007), I also could eat wheat & oats no problem! Another oddball thing that developed after I was diagnosed is a severe intolerance to any rare meat or rare eggs. If they are cooked through, I can eat it. If not cooked well, I have severe abdominal pain, vomiting or diarrhea :-(
    Reply
  2. Lindsey Duncan
    Wow, Kim, I've never met someone else with the same three digestive issues! Sorry to hear about the meat and egg development. Our bodies sure do the strangest things.
    Reply
  3. Susan Garrett
    Great article Lindsey.
    Thanks for all the good information.
    Reply
  4. Becky
    Hi Lindsey!
    Thanks for the informative article! I also used to be able to eat all those goodies with some discomfort not knowing what it was until I got full on painful & scary gastritis!
    Thank goodness for Bobs Red Mill or I would never have a cookie or biscuit again!
    Reply
    1. Lindsey Duncan
      Becky, if you haven't already tried our GF Muffin Mix, you simply must!! It's one of my favorite products. It's honestly so stinkin' easy to use and the muffins are delicious for everyone, even those who eat gluten!
      Reply
  5. Rita
    Very informative, I've never been diagnosed
    With any of these, but I know I have a sensitivity to dairy
    I just don't go there!
    But when I eats oats, wheats I get very sick to my stomach
    By process of elimination I narrowed it to eating breads, pastas etc
    I can't believe not eating those products helps.
    Yet I buy the oat flour, by bobs red mill and make a pancake
    And I can tolerate it so it must be cross contamination?
    With the other products. I'm still working on this on trying
    Gluten free .
    Reply
    1. Lindsey Duncan
      Hi Rita,
      I'm glad you are feeling better but if you want to know for sure what's going on, definitely go to the doc to have it checked out! Eliminating foods as tests can be a long a frustrating process. Your doctor might be able to do a blood test or skin prick to narrow it down more easily!
      Reply
  6. Lorraine Gordon
    Many years ago I was told that I had a "sensitivity to wheat." Not knowing exactly what that meant to me, I filed the information away and continued eating bread and other gluten-filled foods, because they were my favourite foods. However, I recently read Dr. Davis's book, "Wheat Belly," and learned that the wheat I grew up eating from 1940 to 1970 was not the wheat being grown now. This interesting tidbit of information made it easier for me to cut back on wheat products. I eat Bob's Red Mill gluten-free steel-cut oats every day, and that also has helped me forego the bread and pastries. I do have a question, though: what is that gluey-like substance that rises to the top of the pot when I cook my oats?
    Reply
    1. Lindsey Duncan
      Lorraine, I checked with our test kitchen chef Sarah and she informed me the gluey-like substance is starch! She also added, "delicious, delicious starch!" Mmmm so eat up those Steel Cut Oats with relish!
      Reply
  7. Kristy Potter
    When I was diagnosed some years ago, I was told that I am allergic to wheat. As I learn more, I see that my symptoms are Celiac Disease rather than an allergy. When I eat wheat, 12-24 hours later I get intense, almost uncontrollable, irrational anger and rage. My entire body seems to be taken over with seething hate so bad that I can almost taste it. It's horrible and awful, and the feelings inside me are so bad, that I never ever want to feel them again. Even with just a small bit of wheat, I become irritated by little things that don't normally bother me. My personality changes into someone that gets condescending, and says things to people that is offensive, and sometimes ruins friendships or opportunities for herself. Does anyone else have these type of reactions? I have relatives that say I "fake having food allergies as an excuse to act horrible". And that's not true at all.
    Reply
    1. Lindsey Duncan
      That's terrible Kristy! Maybe let your doctor know you are interested in being tested for celiac disease. You might also be interested in talking to a naturopathic doctor about the emotional reaction too. There's a gut/mind connection on which ND's are well-versed, and physical irritation to your body can certainly lead to emotional/mental irritation as well. Everyone is different, and reactions are all across the board!
      Reply
    2. Wendy Cunningham
      Wendy Cunningham
      Dear Kristy,
      I have anger issues and a very short temper when I am suffering gut issues due to ingestion of foods I am sensitive to, as well. I do see a naturopath doctor for this. It has helped a lot. Wendy
      Reply
  8. pam
    I appreciate your article because I'm having the same problem--becoming allergic to everything you mentioned. I'm confused though as to exactly what products I can use to cook with for flours or oats. Or if I'm allergic to oats--is there no alternative?
    Thank you for sharing!
    Reply
    1. Lindsey Duncan
      Good question. If you can't eat gluten but you can eat oats, try out gluten free oats or Organic gluten free oats. If you know you can't to oats either, you'll have to find some new favorite grains. For me, my go-to baking flour is the Gluten Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour, which has a rice flour base. I use our baking mixes a lot too and I love adding Teff Flour to the GF Pancake Mix for a hearty whole grain waffle. Many people like to make their own gluten free flour blends and we have all the ingredients for that. For breakfast cereal alternatives, try Brown Rice Farina, Mighty Tasty Hot Cereal, or my personal favorite, Millet Grits. For side sides, you should definitely try Amaranth and Teff - they are delicious and unique! Also, quinoa is a good option and sorghum grain. There's tons to choose from!
      Reply
  9. Anthony Acker
    The reason we have celiacs and wheat allergies today is solely due to the rise in processed bread and wheat products. If you simply look at the rise of Wonder Bread use from 1952 to now you will see the chart is directly linked to the rise in wheat allergy. I have run a company called wheat and fire pizza catering and have had the ability to serve thousands of people our fresh ground flour, natural yeast two day fermented dough and you know what we have seen? Bloating, pain, headache, indigestion is gone .. we are with these people for at least two hours while they eat our wood fired created pizza and believe me they would let me know if they had issues. Processed foods, the removal of natural microbes from our diet that is what is creating our food allergies not foods we have eaten for thousands of years ...
    Reply
    1. Anthony Acker
      I would like to add I said wheat digestion issues not of course autoimmune drive responses where immunity passed from mother to child are amplified and morph into problems like celiacs
      Reply
  10. Wendy Cunningham
    Wendy Cunningham
    Dear Lindsey,
    Thank you for this wonderful article. I cannot tolerate dairy, eggs or gluten, including Bob's Red Mill gluten free oats. I was recently tested for allergies, which came back negative for everything. I have been tested multiple times for Celiac's, but that, too has been negative, due to the fact that I have been following a mostly gluten free diet for over a decade. I did recently test positive for the DQ2 gene, predisposing me to Celiacs. Because I am also symptomatic, my doctor had me do a gluten challenge. I just had biopsies done this week and am waiting for the results. It is a frustrating situation.
    I am very thankful for Bob's Red Mill products: I have been using them for years. I do have a concern, though with the oats. I am so sensitive to them that I worry about the cross contamination in even your other gluten free products. Since you have an oat allergy, are you able to eat the other gluten free products safely? Do I need to be concerned?
    Finally, I'm glad that I am not alone. Thanks again, Wendy
    Reply
    1. Lindsey Duncan
      Lindsey Duncan
      Hi Wendy,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I'm so sorry to hear about your frustrating situation! I hope you get answers soon. Good question about the cross-contact of our GF oats with other GF products! While we do use the same equipment for different products, we have a very thorough clean-out process every time we switch to a new product on any piece of equipment. We also discard the first 25 pounds of a new run. Because our clean-out is so thorough, I have never had any problems with any of our gluten free, non-oat-containing products having been contaminated with oats. Do make sure that you read the ingredient label though. Usually it's pretty obvious when a product contains oats but our GF 8 Grain Cereal, for instance, has oats.

      I hope this helps! Best wishes Wendy.
      Reply
  11. Suelen
    This is very confusing. I can not eat any kind of pasta, but other products with gluten do not hurt me, like oats, sauces, ice cream ...
    I feel irritated, sometimes depressive, very anxious, many gas, vomiting. I was not at the doctor yet because I read several reports saying that the tests gave negative, even with all the symptoms.

    Thanks!
    Reply
  12. Angela
    Just wanna say, thank you so much for writing this helpful article, it helps me to understand my dad's allergy better...
    Reply
  13. Fernando
    Hi Lindsey,

    I appreciate your article. Do the BRM certified GF products go through and different manufacturing process than the non-certified products (aside from the certification process)?
    Reply

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