According to recent research, although 20% of us think we have a food allergy or intolerance, less than 2% of the UK population actually has one. Over 98% of the UK population can therefore choose from a wide range of food stuffs to make up a healthy balanced diet without worrying about allergies or intolerances.
The Wheat Hypersensitivity Report, authored by Dr Heather Mackenzie and Dr Carina Venter of the University of Portsmouth reveals that over half of the British population believes that wheat allergy is a common illness and also believe that in 2009, wheat was the most commonly self reported food allergen for both men and women.
However, this report commissioned by the Flour Advisory Bureau confirmed that wheat allergy is less common than other food allergies such as peanuts and other nuts, eggs and milk. It also highlighted that there is a clear discrepancy between the number of people who report that they have food allergy or intolerance and the numbers whose food allergy/intolerance can be confirmed by a medical diagnosis based on food exclusion trial. Self-diagnosis and other diagnostic tests (not conducted by qualified medical professionals) are not reliable.
Food allergy is usually investigated via a skin prick test by a medical professional with access to the patient’s clinical history, sometimes in conjunction with a period of eliminating the suspect food.
Parents who believe their child has a food allergy may feel anxious about their health and go to great lengths to ensure their child avoids certain foods. Children are more prone to nutritional problems when foods are excluded from the diet so it’s even more critical that they receive a correct diagnosis.
At present there are no validated tests for diagnosing food intolerance and the diagnosis is through the avoidance of the food for a period of four – six weeks. If the symptoms improve, it is recommended the food should either be introduced at home or during a food challenge, over a period of at least four days.
The report highlights and explains the difference between wheat allergy, wheat intolerance and coeliac disease, which are frequently confused:
Wheat allergy is a reaction to wheat involving an antibody called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). Typically symptoms occur within 2 hours of eating wheat and range from mild to severe, including hives, itching, gastrointestinal symptoms and wheezing.
Wheat intolerance does not involve the immune system but symptoms are often similar to those of allergy although they are usually less severe and tend to occur after a longer period of time and after ingestion of a larger amount of food.
Coeliac disease is immune-mediated but different antibodies are involved than in wheat allergy and there is a wide variation in symptoms experienced, which can include weight loss, diarrhoea, stomach cramps and iron deficiency.
If you have symptoms which you think may be caused by a food allergy or intolerance, you should seek help from a doctor. Any food, including wheat, should not be excluded without appropriate advice on how to maintain a healthy diet.
The Wheat Hypersensitivity Report also highlights that wheat is present in a wide variety of foods such as pasta, ready meals, bread and biscuits so avoiding it can be difficult and negatively affect your daily routine. Avoiding any one food such as wheat may have an adverse impact on your nutritional intake, and quality of life, so don’t make life complicated for yourself without getting proper medical advice.