How do we make sense of wheat as an allergy, as causing coeliac disease, as affecting cooking softness, and as producing wind in some people? And there is a report saying that many people are eating more gluten-free products as they wrongly believe they are better for their general health and weight control. Let us think through all the issues involved. We have to consider the starch part of wheat which contains the fructans that can cause wind, and the protein part which is the gluten. Fructan is a fermentable sugar that acts as a prebiotic for the gut flora.
To get an ideal loaf of bread we need a high protein [high gluten] flour which is called a “bread-making flour”, as the gluten provides the strands that hold the bread up, and yeast which starts to grow on a small amount of sugar and then it grows in the wheat starch as its energy source. Yeast does not use the wheat sugar called fructan which is the part that some wind-producing gut bacteria thrive on and produce discomforting wind in some IBS people.
A sour-dough bread has the same amount of gluten, but the sour-dough bacteria use the fructans as their energy source. They do not produce as much gas, so the sourdough bread does not rise as much so the loaf is heavier. The gluten still helps with the structure, so the loaf does not crumble as bread made with cornflour would. The loaf does not provide fructans to the gut flora, so people bothered by wind from usual breads can eat sour-dough breads with comfort. Those sensitive to gluten cannot eat sour-dough bread as the gluten is still the same as other breads.
We know that gluten is the protein that causes Coeliac Disease in susceptible people. But there are those who are not coeliacs but have gut symptoms if they have wheat, so their condition is called “non-coeliac gluten intolerance” by gastroenterologists. There are other people whose symptoms are thought to be due to wheat, but they are negative to allergy tests for wheat. So we could call them “non-allergic gluten intolerance”, as where people are allergic to wheat it is the wheat protein, gluten, that they are reacting to. Either way there are people who react to wheat, but we do not know the mechanism.
This group should attend to wheat but only need to restrict it to whatever level of use minimises their symptoms. Fortunately, they rarely need to be as strict as coeliacs. See the guidelines in Are You Food Sensitive? for advice on “How to limit wheat to avoid complete exclusion” for useful hints.
Where people have a positive allergy test to wheat they should be advised by their allergist as to how strict they may need to be. Those who have an anaphylactic reaction need to be very very strict.
Thinking about different wheat flours for baking is yet another discussion! The amount of gluten in usual flour, called “cake-making flour”, is less than in bread-making flour so cakes are softer. If you enjoy making cakes you should try different flours and see differences. Spelt is another type of wheat flour with similar protein levels so is also useful for cooking. And it has the advantage for those who get wind from bread that its level of fructans is lower so the group who get wind from usual bread can enjoy it.
Because of these many aspects of wheat and gluten intolerance there are more people thinking about it and there are more gluten-free products on the market. Some US researchers report that many people wrongly think that gluten-free products may be helpful for good health generally and even weight control. Were you hear of this do correct these incorrect ideas. But where people think they get symptoms when they eat foods containing wheat they should investigate further. They can exclude wheat for four weeks and then reintroduce it in gradually increasing amounts so they see if it is the culprit and just how much they should restrict it. Ideas on maximising wheat tolerance are included in Tolerating Troublesome Foods.
Overall you can adjust how you use flour and wheat in your life. Be cautious where necessary but use wheat where you can so you do not miss out on whatever enjoyment you can manage.