Difference between Wheat and Gluten

Published on November 23, 2016

Where do you stand on the whole gluten free food issue? You have probably been eating gluten your whole life and you feel fine. Now you are wondering whether it is a good idea to buy into this gluten free hype. The best way to approach the issue is to make well informed decisions when it comes to food. 

Definitions

Wheat vs Gluten
Wheat in a field

Wheat is a cereal grain cultivated worldwide. It is the most extensively grown commercial food in the world and is the leading source of vegetal protein in human food. This grain is ground into flour once harvested. It can also be eaten cut, ground into semolina, steamed, dried, and crushed into bulgur. Wheat is in the majority of pastry products, bread, pasta, gravy, breakfast cereals, doughnuts, pancakes, cookies, and more.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, oats and hybrids. It acts like glue in keeping food together and it is the substance that gives dough its elasticity and chewy texture. Apart from its naturally occurring state inside grains, producers can add additional gluten to dough to increase its structural stability. Imitation meat products also benefit from gluten additives as this provides more consistency to vegetarian meals.

People can react to gluten consumption differently; there are those who are fine with it, those who have small reactions they never thought could be linked to gluten and those who are completely intolerant of the protein. The latter category suffers from the celiac disease. This is an autoimmune disorder with manifestations such as diarrhea, malabsorption, and loss of appetite. The reactions are mainly intestinal, but the disease is usually linked with other autoimmune diseases such as diabetes and thyroiditis.

Although about 1% of people are gluten intolerant, the number of gluten sensitive people is much higher. This condition is called nonceliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). In this case, gluten consumption may lead to irritable bowel syndrome, foggy mind, depression, and skin problems.

Wheat vs Gluten

So what is the difference between wheat and gluten?

Products labeled “gluten free” made such a speedy appearance in supermarkets that people did not have the time to read up on gluten and only caught the association with wheat. They instinctively thought that wheat equaled gluten, which is not the case.

Gluten is an elastic protein found in wheat AND in other cereals. Staying away from wheat products is not enough in the case of a gluten allergy, since gluten can be added to give elasticity to products which do not have wheat in their ingredient list. Cosmetic products can also contain gluten. In case of severe allergies, these must be avoided.

Wheat allergy only refers to wheat and excludes the list of other cereals or foods to which gluten is added.

Comparison Chart

Wheat Gluten
A grain cereal An elastic protein found in wheat, rye, barley, oats and hybrids
Goes into bread, pasta, gravy, muffins, doughnuts, pancakes, and a number of other foods Found in foods made with the cereals which contain it; it is also added to give extra elasticity to dough and imitation meat
A person with gluten allergy cannot eat foods made from wheat A person with wheat allergy can eat foods with gluten coming from other sources