Wheat Allergy Warning: Watch Out for Wheat Starch [Video]

in Celiac, Managing Allergies, Travel & Dining
Published: March 14, 2024

My older son has a severe wheat allergy, among other food allergies. But he’s not sensitive to other gluten-containing grains. When we dine out with him, however, it had become our habit to build his order from a restaurant’s gluten-free menu.

This is because most servers at least “get” gluten-free, since the diet has exploded in popularity.

Gluten-free options are widely available, and not just to serve those who manage celiac disease. Eating “GF” is also a trendy preference among millions who follow it as a health and lifestyle choice. That demand drives awareness and made mentioning “gluten-free” an easy starting point at restaurants.

Or it least it did. Life as we knew it is changing. This is because a growing number of products labeled gluten-free now include wheat starch that’s considered gluten-free. While this starch is processed to wash out most gluten protein, traces can remain.

So, with a wheat allergy, we can no longer hide behind the convenient term “gluten-free”. Instead, we now need to do extra research to understand what is truly wheat-free and safe for our son.

I first noticed this issue with a European gluten-free baker who had the most beautiful recipe photos. I thought, “there is no way this is gluten-free.” Turns out, she used a European flour, Caputo, that uses wheat starch. It took a few years – but now I’m seeing this starch in a major U.S. brand: King Arthur Flour.

When I pick up two packages of King Arthur’s gluten-free flours – Measure for Measure and their Bread Flour – they look all-too similar, with gluten-free labels on the front. It’s not until you turn the package over that you’ll see the “contains wheat” on the back of the wheat starch-containing Bread Flour. 

Wheat Starch: Readers’ Reaction Tales

Thankfully, King Arthur only has wheat starch in their gluten-free Bread and Pizza Flour. There are other blends our family can use, but I wish King Arthur had a call-out on the front of their package to differentiate.

Schar, a European company that sells many products in North America, also uses wheat starch in some of their foods – their popular croissants, for example.

I took to Instagram and TikTok to alert others with wheat allergy of these changes, and boy did I get responses – over 700 of them. There was a lot of debate in the comments.

It was a mix of  “thanks for letting us know,” and admonishments that “you shouldn’t have relied on the term gluten-free” for wheat allergy. The latter group noted that the FDA permits gluten-free labels on products with under 20 parts per million of gluten, the safety standard in celiac disease.

Regardless of which camp you fall into, there were some close calls that my followers shared that are worth mentioning.

One follower wrote: “a restaurant told me it was gluten-free.… I ate several yummy pieces. I was coughing and had broken out with hives by the time we left. Dug a little deeper – it was Caputo’s flour.”

Another follower stated: “I bought the King Arthur [gluten-free] Pizza Flour to make calzones and got so sick.”

Yet another: “This happened to me in Spain! Bought some gluten-free crackers and broke out in hives. I was so confused! Read the ingredients for the crackers – first ingredient was wheat starch.”

Celiac Disease: Watch the Labeling

I would love to think that my wheat-allergic son could tolerate the small amount of gluten in wheat starch, much as most who have soy allergy can tolerate soy lecithin. However, I’ve spoken with our allergist and another allergist, and both say there isn’t any data to know.

Plus, depending on the brand and manufacturer, there isn’t always a way to ensure there is no wheat present. (Some brands may not test much below the 20 ppm celiac cutoff, and that may be too high a threshold for some with wheat allergies).

So, my family now needs to avoid wheat starch, just to be safe. If you’re allergic to wheat, talk to your own allergist for personalized advice.

I must note that, even the celiac community was in conflict over my Instagram post. Many commenters said they’d never dare eat wheat starch, while others say they absolutely love these products.

Though if you have celiac, do note: the expert Gluten Free Watch Dog recommends not eating a product with wheat starch unless it is clearly labeled gluten-free. Her testing of wheat starch has shown that some brands not labeled gluten-free contain wheat above the 20 ppm threshold.

The saving grace for our family with food products is that FALCPA, the allergen labeling law, requires wheat to be listed on ingredient labels. So, we have that going for us. We need to remember to always check every ingredients list, every time, and not to rely on marketing call-outs on the front of the package.

Big Dining Issues for the Wheat-Free

My biggest fear for this new wave: eating at restaurants and bakeries where we can’t hold the package and read the ingredients. It’s going to take more questioning to determine if a food that’s “gluten-free” is truly “wheat-free.” Then there’s the issue of whether the employee you’re speaking to understands the difference.

This whole messy issue reminds me of how dairy allergy people can no longer rely on the term “vegan” to mean dairy-free. That’s because there are now lab-engineered milk products that are labeled vegan, since they don’t involve cows. But they do contain dairy proteins. As the food industry continues to grow, change and more techniques become available, we’ll need to stay ever vigilant.

So moving forward let us all be aware, let us be careful and always reading labels. I know it feels like a bit of a loss and wearying to have one more thing to watch out for. But our families’ health and safety is worth it. We can do this.

There are several parts that comprise a food, including protein, starch and fat. Gluten is found in the protein of wheat, so companies have found a way to “wash” that away, leaving only the starch. Some companies, including King Arthur, Caputo and Schar, still meet the North American standard for being gluten-free (less than 20 parts per million of gluten). The wheat starch they use in their products tests under this threshold. Learn more here.

Also see dietitian Shelley Case’s explanation here of the types of wheat starch, and why some are not even celiac-safe.

Following are some gluten-free brands that don’t use wheat starch.

Better Batter
GF Jules
Walmart’s Great Value
Bob’s Red Mill 1:1

Reminder: always check the product label, as manufacturers can update ingredients. Also, always check individual brands’ “may contain” allergen statements for your own allergy needs.

Join Allergic Living monthly for a new installment of Megan’s Minute with Megan Lavin, the creator of the Allergy Awesomeness blog, which features great Top-9 free recipes and articles. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

More videos from Megan Lavin:
Our Food Allergy Family’s First Cruise
Packing Easy Lunches with Food Allergies
How Not to Overreact with an Allergic Child
Food Allergies and the Married Couple
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Going to Birthday Parties