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3.3 Gluten (wheat) and grain allergies


This article is from the Children Allergies and Asthma FAQ, by Eileen Kupstas Soo kupstas@cs.unc.edu with numerous contributions by others.

3.3 Gluten (wheat) and grain allergies

Allergies to grain products can be hard to pin down. Grain
products are ubiquitous. Most allergic reactions are quite mild, but
some can be quite severe. Usually the symptoms are a runny nose, red
eyes, and such, but grain allergies can also cause digestive

A common allergy is to gluten, a mixture of proteins found in wheat
and other grains (rye, oats, barley etc.). Gluten is the portion of
flour that gives a porous, spongy texture to bread. It is also used
as a base in cosmetic powders and creams. Reactions range from runny
nose and itchy eyes to upset stomach to severe gas. In children (and
adults!), personality changes can be a symptom -- inability to
concentrate, irritableness, crankiness, difficulties with mental
alertness and memory. Some research indicates there may be a connection
between attention deficit disorders and undiagnosed gluten allergies.

Gluten allergies can also cause dermatitis herpetiformis (D.H.), a
chronic benign, skin disorder characterized by an intense burning and
itching rash. A new unscratched lesion is red, raised, and usually
less than 1 cm in diameter with a tiny blister at the center.
However, if scratched, crusting appears on the surface. The "burning"
or "stinging" sensation is different from a "regular" itch, and can
often occur 8-12 hours before a lesion appears. The most common areas
are the elbows, knees, back of the neck and scalp, upper back, and
the buttocks. Facial and hair-line lesions are not uncommon; the
inside of the mouth is rarely affected. The rash has symmetric
distribution. Medications are available to treat the problem, but
elimination of gluten is a long-term answer.

Severe reactions to wheat occur in the condition known as Celiac-Sprue
[note: this may not be a true allergy, but I will include it here.]
For people with this condition, the intestine reacts strongly to
gluten products. The small cilia on the intestinal wall gradually
flatten, reducing the ability of the intestines to absorb
nutrients. This is a serious condition leading to malnutrition. The
treatment consists of avoiding wheat and gluten in any form. In
Western cultures, this can be VERY difficult. Remember that other
grains such as rye and oats can cause problems, since they contain
small amounts of gluten. It is unknown whether a child will outgrow
this condition, but the current safe opinion is that gluten must be
avoided for life. More information is available from several support
organizations. (See resources list for a mailing list .)

It can be difficult to avoid gluten in processed foods. It's used as
a starch, binder, bulking agent, formulation aid, stabilizer, shaper,
thickener, emulsific filler and as a glaze. Some foods labeled
"wheat free" may still contain gluten. Even things like lip gloss,
make-up, shampoo and hand cream can contain gluten.

It is possible to have good food without eating a wheat based
diet. You will have to investigate the various options and see which
suits your situation best. A number of cuisines are not based on wheat
and provide alternatives around which to center your diet. Chinese,
Indian, and other Asian countries often center the diet around rice.
Some Eastern European countries use other grains such as millet, barley
and buckwheat.

A number of substitutes for wheat in baking are available. If
you can tolerate some gluten, rye and oats can be used. These do not
make a baked product exactly like wheat, but do make an acceptable
one. For gluten free baked products, a mixture of rice flour, potato
starch flour, and tapioca flour can be used. (Recipes given below.)

Any baking done without wheat will take practice; you have to
learn a whole new way of doing it. The products are not exactly like
wheat products but are tasty and satisfying. Most are as easy to make
as the wheat version (after a few initial failures while learning). For
many cookies and cakes, the results are very good. For breads, the
results are better termed satisfactory but still quite good in their
own way.

Corn is another potential allergen, distinct from gluten allergies. As
with wheat, corn products are found in any number of products. Corn
starch is used as a thickener for many foods, as a base for cosmetics,
and to prevent sticking. Corn sugar is used as an ingredient in many
sodas, bottled fruit drinks, baking mixes, and such. It is also used
in the glue for envelopes and stamps, in cosmetics, as a pill coating,
in processed foods, and spice mixes. Symptoms range from skin rashes,
runny nose and itchy eyes, to asthma.


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