Gluten is one of the more than one hundred kinds of protein in wheat. The gluten protein has the highly desirable property of elasticity. It is used in many types of baking because it provides the strength and flexibility that allows dough to contain gas and rise. For most, protein in wheat is a good thing. Wheat is a major source of protein for humans across the globe. For those unable to eat gluten due to wheat allergies, wheat intolerance or gluten intolerance, the widespread use of gluten in the food industry forces them to avoid a great many food products.
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People with wheat allergies have an autoimmune response to wheat and wheat products. Their immune system mistakes wheat molecules as invaders and their white blood cells form protein antibodies that try to neutralize the invaders. Symptoms can occur within a few minutes to several hours and can include nausea, vomiting, hives, watery eyes, eczema, rashes, itching, runny nose, coughing, headaches, swelling of the throat, lips or limbs, difficulty breathing and general aches and pains. Though rare, in severe cases, people can have anaphylactic shock. Those with wheat allergies may respond to the gluten but also may respond to the other non-gluten proteins in wheat products.
Celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance, occurs when the immune system responds to gluten in the digestive tract by attacking the inner lining of the small intestine. The lining of the small intestine becomes inflamed and over time loses its capacity to absorb nutrients from food. Symptoms, which are accumulative and take time to appear, can include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, weight loss and malnutrition. People with celiac disease often also respond adversely to proteins similar to gluten such as found in oats, rye and barley.
Wheat intolerance does not involve the immune system. Though the cause is not known with certainty, some experts believe that certain people lack an enzyme needed to digest wheat, according to an article in the Daily Mail. Symptoms include joint pain, headaches and bloating.
Wheat starch is a powder produced by removing the proteins, including gluten, from wheat flour. Wheat starch is used as a thickening agent and stabilizer in gravies and processed foods. It is also used as an ingredient in food sweeteners, such as glucose syrup, malotdextrins and dextrose. While most of the protein is successfully extracted from the flour to produce wheat starch, highly sensitive people may still react to the bit of protein that remains. Also, a few mills may use the same machinery for processing starch and gluten, so additional small amounts of residual gluten can find its way into starch.
People with celiac disease, wheat allergies or wheat intolerance should avoid commercial wheat starch. Wheat starch that is specifically manufactured to comply with the International Gluten-free Standard can safely be consumed, according to Internet Health Library, though this product is costly to produce and is not generally used in widely distributed commercial food products.
Gluten is contained in bread, bakery, cereal products and pasta made from wheat flour. Wheat flour, gluten and wheat starch are also hidden away in a broad expanse of food products, such as fried chicken, meatloaf, sauces and gravies thickened with flour or wheat starch, pancakes and waffles, cold cuts, hot dogs and salad dressing thickened with flour or wheat starch. Beer, soy sauce, dairy products such as ice cream, couscous, condiments such as ketchup and coffee creamer substitutes also can contain gluten. Check ingredient labels and avoid foods that contain natural flavorings, gelatinized starch, modified food starch, hydrolyzed vegetable protein and vegetable gum.