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Setting the Allergy Record Straight

  • Editorial Staff
  • January 2014
  • 5 min read

Photo Credit: ReaAllen

The words “celiac disease,” “allergy,” “intolerance” and “sensitivity” are commonly interchanged when used to describe a person’s relationship and reaction to gluten and wheat. While there are a few similarities between the conditions, there also are important differences.

Celiac disease is a hereditary autoimmune disease in which a person’s immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine when gluten is eaten. This damages the cells that absorb nutrients from food and causes symptoms like gastrointestinal distress, fatigue, weight loss and slowed growth in children. Celiac disease can be diagnosed through blood tests and a biopsy of the small intestine to assess for damage. The only treatment currently available is to avoid eating gluten.  

A food allergy is defined as an abnormal response of a person’s immune system to a food. When a trigger food is ingested, a person’s immune system recognizes that food as a harmful substance instead of as nourishment, and an allergic reaction — such as hives, wheezing or even difficulty breathing — follows. Skin and blood tests can be used to diagnose it, and the only treatment is to avoid eating the trigger food.

There are eight main food allergy culprits. One of them is wheat. While gluten is a protein found in wheat, a wheat allergy is not the same thing as celiac disease or a gluten allergy. Experts say there may be other components in wheat, such as fructans, rather than gluten that are causing adverse reactions in people. In fact, some experts recently indicated there is no such thing as a “gluten allergy” at all. It may be an argument of semantics, however, experts do agree that celiac disease is a real and serious condition. It could be suggested that celiac disease is what people should think of when they hear “gluten allergy.”

A food sensitivity or intolerance is defined as causing an adverse reaction to a food or food group that does not involve the immune system. Experts and research studies agree that there is a condition known as non-celiac gluten intolerance (or gluten sensitivity). However, it is still not completely understood. What is known is that people with this condition experience neither an immune response indicative of an allergy nor do they show the small intestinal damage that is seen in celiac disease. In other words, sufferers may experience many of the same symptoms from food allergies or celiac disease, but diagnostic blood tests do not confirm either of the medical conditions. Following a gluten-free diet also is advised for those suffering from this condition.



National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse | Medline Plus | Gluten Intolerance Group