Food Allergy

Breaking Bread: How to Handle Wheat Allergies and Gluten Intolerances

Posted by
Trust20 Contributors • 11 minute read

Wheat is a staple in the U.S. food chain and one of the most commonly discussed food allergies. Up to 1% of all children have wheat allergies, but most outgrow them by age 12.1,2 While wheat allergies aren’t super common, gluten intolerances are becoming more widespread.

As a foodservice professional, you need to understand the difference between the two–and how to best address them to keep your customers safe. Those old misconceptions you may have had about wheat allergies? Let’s just say they’re toast.

What is the Difference Between a Wheat Allergy and a Gluten Intolerance?

How to Safely Serve Customers With Wheat Allergies and Gluten Intolerances

What is the Difference Between a Wheat Allergy and a Gluten Intolerance?

Let's start with the basics. A wheat allergy is an immune response to proteins found in wheat. 

The symptoms can range from hives and nausea to asthma and anaphylaxis.3

On the other hand, gluten intolerance (also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity) is a digestive disorder that causes symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, and fatigue in response to gluten.

While both can be unpleasant, they are two entirely different conditions.

Gluten intolerance is generally considered a less severe condition. It is typically not life-threatening (anaphylaxis from a wheat allergy can be!), but it still manifests with unpleasant symptoms, typically digestive symptoms. Unlike a wheat allergy, gluten intolerance won't trigger that dangerous immune response.

Now, you might think, "But wait, aren't wheat and gluten the same thing?" Not exactly. Whole wheat does contain gluten. However, there are other sources of gluten out there. Gluten is also found in other grains, such as barley and rye, so someone with a gluten intolerance would need to avoid those as well.

But why has gluten intolerance become so much more common than it used to be? It's not because people are just jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon.

Modern wheat cultivation has led to a higher concentration of toxic 33-mer gliadin peptide, which makes it harder to digest gluten proteins. Moreover, the use of pesticides has made gluten peptides even more toxic than before.4

And if that's not enough, the gluten content of baked goods has increased overall, too!

Now, let's talk about celiac disease. It's not a wheat allergy, but it is an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten that affects the small intestine. It can cause long-term damage to the digestive system and lead to nutrient deficiencies.

Celiac disease is also different from gluten intolerance–while gluten intolerance does not provoke an immune response, celiac disease does.1

How to Safely Serve Customers With Wheat Allergies and Gluten Intolerances

Whether you work in a hospital cafeteria or you’re a restaurant sous chef, there’s no doubt about it–serving customers with any allergies or sensitivities, particularly those with wheat allergies or gluten intolerance, can be intimidating.

However, with a little bit of knowledge and these helpful tips, you can make sure all of your customers are satisfied and safe.

1. Educate Yourself and Your Team Members on the Difference Between Wheat Allergy and Gluten Intolerance

The most important thing you can do is ensure everybody on your team knows the differences between wheat allergies and gluten intolerances.

To recap, a wheat allergy is an allergic reaction to the proteins found in wheat, while gluten intolerance (also known as celiac disease) is an autoimmune disorder triggered by consuming gluten. The symptoms for both can be similar, but a wheat allergy can also include symptoms like hives and anaphylaxis, which require immediate medical attention.

From the kitchen to the front of the house, everyone should be well-versed in handling food allergies and intolerances (including wheat and gluten) and other common allergens, like dairy). Allergen awareness training should include understanding the severity of reactions and knowing how to quickly and effectively respond in an emergency.

2. Read Labels

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requires that “major allergens be clearly labeled on food labels.” These major allergens include milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. The FDA added sesame to the list in 2023.

However, it's important to note that this may be in the form of a "may contain" or "processed in a facility with" statement–which are not required and may be voluntary.

To make matters worse, the FDA lists whole wheat as an allergen, while gluten is not among these mandatory allergen labels (because it’s widely regarded as a sensitivity rather than an allergy).5 This means that even if a product contains gluten, it may not be labeled as such. That is why it's important to do your research and educate yourselves on the common sources of gluten. 

Wheat, barley, and rye are the most common grains to contain gluten, but they can also be found in unexpected places like soy sauce, beer, and even hot dogs (yes, you read that right).

3. Watch Out for Tricky Nomenclature

Wheat can go by many different names, so knowing what’s out there is essential. Bread crumbs, couscous, farina, and semolina are just a few of wheat's many forms. It's also important to be mindful of foods that may not have wheat listed as an ingredient but can still contain it, such as sauces and processed meats.

Gluten can be an even more sneaky culprit. You can find gluten in soy sauce, beer, imitation crab meat, and even personal care items like cosmetics and hair products. So, it's important to do your research and be aware of all the possible sources of gluten.

Now, let's talk about non-food items. Some individuals with wheat allergies or gluten intolerances can react to non-food items like soap. It is especially important to remember this when serving younger guests who may be unable to communicate their sensitivity to these products.

A few “danger zone” ingredients and products to watch out for include:

  • Bulgur 

  • Cracker meal

  • Emmer

  • Farro

  • Glucose syrup

  • Starch

  • Flour

  • Plant-based meat alternatives 

  • Hydrolyzed wheat protein

  • Freekeh

  • Spelt

  • Sprouted wheat

  • Wheat germ oil

  • Wheatgrass

  • Wheat bran hydrolysate

  • Whole wheat berries

  • Crackers

  • Rice cakes

  • Soups and sauces

  • Some spices

  • Beer

  • Ale

  • Batter-fried foods

  • Baking mixes

  • Breakfast cereals

  • Some candies

  • Potato chips (in some cases)

  • Ice cream (in some cases)

  • Hot dogs.

That’s not to say you’ll find wheat in all these dishes or food items.1 However, they can contain wheat or gluten, so it’s important to always read the labels and exercise caution, even if it seems common sense that a food would contain these problematic ingredients (hot dogs–who knew?).

Many Asian dishes even use wheat flour that’s flavored to look like pork, beef, or shrimp–so be mindful of these ingredients, too.

One safe ingredient that people often get confused about? Buckwheat. Although wheat is quite literally in the name, this one’s not related to true wheat and can be a good alternative for people who are allergic. 

4. Don’t Forget About Non-Food Items

While food is the primary concern, it's important to remember that other products, like soaps or cleaning supplies, may contain wheat or gluten.

Always check all non-food items for potential allergens and provide suitable alternatives whenever possible.

5. Store Allergens Separately 

When storing allergens, it’s essential to keep them separate from other ingredients to prevent cross-contact. That means using separate utensils, cutting boards, and cooking surfaces. It’s also a good idea to label all containers clearly to avoid confusion.

6. Choose Non-Wheat or Gluten Flours

Thankfully, there are a variety of flours available that are free from wheat and gluten. Think about using rice flour, almond flour, coconut flour, and chickpea flour. 

Remember that other grains, like barley and rye, still contain gluten, so clearly label any dishes that contain them. Oats, quinoa, and barley can be safe alternatives for people with wheat allergies.

7. Label Gluten-Free and Wheat-Free Dishes on Your Menu 

Label your gluten-free and wheat-free dishes on your menu. That not only helps customers identify what they can eat, but it also shows that you're taking their concerns seriously.

According to recent research, up to 30% of Americans avoid gluten to some degree–even if not for medical purposes–so having these options available can attract a larger customer base.6

8. Establish a Gluten-Free Zone to Reduce Risk of Cross-Contact 

Of course, simply labeling dishes isn't enough. You should also establish a gluten-free zone in your kitchen to reduce cross contact risk. That means having dedicated equipment, utensils, and work surfaces that you only use for gluten-free items.

It's worth noting that even a tiny amount of gluten can trigger a reaction in someone with celiac disease, so taking steps to prevent cross-contact is crucial. 

9. Frequently Clean and Sanitize Grills and Other Appliances 

It's essential to frequently clean and sanitize grills, ovens, and other appliances to avoid any leftover gluten residue. That may seem like common sense, but it's too easy to skip a step (or two) when you're prepping busy kitchens. 

10. Make Sure Every Plate is Clean and Hasn’t Been Contaminated

Cross contact is a common problem that can be particularly harmful to those with wheat or gluten intolerance. Again, even a tiny amount of gluten can cause severe symptoms and discomfort for those who are sensitive to it. 

If you realize a gluten or wheat item has made its way onto a customer’s plate and shouldn't be there, removing the offending item is not enough. You need to start over with a fresh plate.

Ensure all utensils, cooking equipment, and surfaces are thoroughly cleaned before preparing gluten-free dishes. Cook and store gluten-free products separately from other products to avoid possible contamination.

Another effective technique for ensuring gluten-free handling is for staff members to wear fresh gloves when preparing gluten-free plates. That will help reduce the risk of cross-contamination, which can catalyze stressful and uncomfortable experiences for our customers.

And don’t overlook the importance of good hand hygiene, either. 

11. Find Ways to “Deglutenized” Your Menu Items

Having to be wheat- or gluten-free can be stressful for customers. Try to find ways to alleviate some of that stress for them.

Can you adjust your menu to accommodate your customers? Can you remove breadcrumbs or starches from your recipes or use gluten-free alternatives?

You can use many amazing gluten-free flours, such as almond, rice, and quinoa flour instead of wheat flour. Gluten-free breadcrumbs have also become popular and are available in most grocery stores. Starches like arrowroot or cornstarch can replace wheat-based thickeners in sauces and soups.

While there was once a stigma surrounding gluten-free food, claiming it was bland and gritty, there are now so many gluten-free alternatives that you can swap in a safe alternative without most customers even knowing the difference.

It's also worth considering how your customers can customize their meals. For example, if your establishment sells pizza, consider offering gluten-free crusts. You can also add flexible options to your menu. For instance, instead of offering a club sandwich with wheat bread, you can offer it as a lettuce wrap alternative.

By finding ways to de-glutenize your menu items, you can ensure that gluten-free options are readily available and that your customers have diverse choices. That also increases the chances of introducing new and exciting flavors to your menu, providing a wholesome dining experience for all your customers–even those without food allergies or sensitivities.

12. Know the Signs (and How to Handle) an Allergic Reaction

While a gluten sensitivity doesn't usually cause an allergic reaction, a wheat allergy can.

Because of this, you need to ensure all your team members are well-versed in the symptoms of an allergic reaction and know what to do in an emergency. These can vary from person to person but might include:

  • Hives and itching

  • Swelling of the face, lips, tongue, or throat

  • Difficulty breathing, wheezing, or coughing

  • Abdominal pain, nausea, or vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Dizziness, fainting, or loss of consciousness.

If you suspect a customer is having an allergic reaction, don't hesitate to call 911 and administer an epinephrine auto-injector if they have one. It's better to be safe than sorry. Also, note what the customer ate and pinpoint the exact cause of the reaction.

13. Keep a List of Problematic Ingredients Handy in Your Kitchen 

One of the most challenging aspects of serving customers with wheat allergies and gluten intolerances is knowing what ingredients to avoid. 

As we mentioned earlier, gluten and wheat can sneak into almost anything, from sauces to seasonings to soups, so paying close attention to labels and asking questions is essential.

To make things easier, create a list of problematic ingredients and post it in your kitchen where all team members can see it.

Final Thoughts

The best way to work with customers with wheat allergies or gluten sensitivities is to do just that–work with them. There’s no substitute for clear, honest communication with your customers. If you can’t be 100% sure that a dish is safe, make sure your customer knows that. It’s better to turn someone away than to make them sick.

And if you’re having trouble remembering these tips, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Trust20 offers expert guidance and products specifically designed for foodservice professionals like yourself. It’s easier than you think to create an allergen-safe kitchen–especially when you have Trust20 on your side.

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  1. Food Allergy Research & Education: Wheat

  2. Wenfeng Liu et al.: A Meta-Analysis of the Prevalence of Wheat Allergy Worldwide

  3. American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology: Wheat & Gluten Allergy | Symptoms & Treatment 

  4. American Camp Association: Gluten-Related Disorders: A Complex Spectrum

  5. FDA: Food Allergens/Gluten-Free Guidance Documents & Regulatory Information

  6. Harvard University: Ditch the Gluten, Improve Your Health?