What is gluten intolerance?

Gluten is a protein molecule in grains such as wheat, rye and barley, and to a lesser degree in oats. It comprises 78% of the total protein in modern wheat and binds dough in foods such as bread and other baked goods, contributing to the spongy elastic consistency, or a ‘lighter loaf’ in the case of bread.

Most people who are intolerant to gluten find that they are not affected by oats. However, there is some concern about contamination of oats, since they are often stored in the same silos as wheat. Most people on a strict gluten-free diet therefore choose to play it safe and avoid oats altogether.


A variety of adverse reactions to the proteins in cereals are possible. These include allergy and intolerances like coeliac disease. The reactions may be mild to life threatening, short term to lifelong. Gluten and wheat intolerance is common today, with many sufferers being unaware of their condition.

Wheat products can result in digestive disorders, respiratory tract conditions such as asthma and allergic rhinitis, or skin problems such as eczema and urticaria in people sensitive to wheat. Gluten intolerance doesn’t necessarily manifest as gut symptoms, so some people have no idea they’re intolerant. However, it’s usually more severe, resulting in diarrhoea or constipation, gastrointestinal bleeding and poor absorption of nutrients and giving rise to conditions such as chronic fatigue, inability to concentrate, weight problems, infertility, muscle or joint pain, and moodiness or depression.

The latest research indicates that one in three people are gluten intolerant, and that more than 80% of us are genetically predisposed to gluten intolerance. Avoidance of wheat and gluten-containing foods is the only treatment. Many people who are allergic or intolerant to wheat or gluten find that they can desensitise their systems by avoiding the specific allergen for at least six months, ideally a year. Wheat or gluten can then be re-introduced into the diet in some cases. Adhering to a strict wheat- or gluten-free diet is difficult and has social implications, especially for children. It’s therefore vital that a correct diagnosis be made.


If you are wheat intolerant, you only have to avoid wheat and can still eat other gluten-containing products, but if you are gluten intolerant, you need to exclude all gluten-containing products from your diet. An easy way to remember which grains contain gluten is BROW – barley, rye, oats and wheat. Note that spelt and kamut are non-hybridised varieties of wheat and therefore also contain gluten, and should be avoided by those on a gluten-free diet. However, most people who are intolerant to wheat find that they can tolerate spelt and kamut well.

You might ask in despair, what are the alternatives to gluten? Gluten-free grains and flours include brown and white rice, potato, tapioca (cassava), pea or chickpea (garbanzo/chana), lupin, fava bean, yellow and white maize meal (corn flour), arrowroot, buckwheat, millet, sorghum, teff, amaranth and quinoa.

Include a variety of whole grains in your diet, even if you are not wheat or gluten intolerant. Any grain or food item can result in allergy or intolerance if eaten on a daily basis.

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