selection of wheat products

Wheat has been farmed in the UK for centuries and has long been considered a staple in the UK diet.  But, in more recent times it’s started to be seen as a problem food.  This article looks at why this change of heart may be occurring.

What could wheat contain that can cause problems?


Wheat contains two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, which when mixed with water combine to form gluten.  When susceptible individuals consume gliadin it activates another protein called zonulin in the gut.  This opens up the tight junctions (the tiny gaps between the cells in the walls of our small intestines through which nutrients pass) allowing bigger particles to pass through.  While this is reversible, consuming large amounts of gliadin throughout the day may mean the tight junctions are ‘open’ for more of the time.  This opening of the tight junctions is referred to as increased intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut”.  Some autoimmune conditions such as Coeliac’s Disease and Type 1 Diabetes have been associated with high zonulin levels and/or increased intestinal permeability.  Some studies also suggest that MS, IBD, rheumatoid arthritis and asthma have these associations too.

For some individuals, gluten can cause digestive discomfort due to intolerance without triggering autoimmune conditions.

It is thought that some individuals may be more susceptible to gluten sensitivity due to their genetics, immune system, gut microbiome, or early exposure to gluten in childhood through early weaning.

Wheat is not the only grain to contain these proteins.  It is also found in barley and rye.  You can find a detailed list of gluten-containing foods at Coeliac UK.


I first came across this allergy when I looked at a selection of allergy-type symptoms for a client.  Profilin is a protein found in many foods, including wheat, barley, strawberries, hazelnuts, pineapple, celery and many more foods.  In fact the World Health Organisation recognises more than 50 profilin allergies, although only 27 of these are categorised as food allergens.  Other profilin allergens may be noticed through allergic response to the pollen of birch, timothy grass, ragweed and oak, amongst many others.

Profilin proteins tend to be heat resistant and so the method of preparing the food is unlikely to affect its allergenic properties.

Lipid Transfer Proteins (LTP)

LTP are additional proteins found in wheat and many of the same foods as prolifin!  Most of the LTP in food is in the skin and seeds.  Like with profilin, you may find that not all foods containing the allergen trigger reactions.  LTPs are not broken down during digestion or food preparation.

In the case of LTP, reactions may be more severe if certain other substances are also present, such as alcohol, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, stress and even exercise.  The NHS recommend not consuming alcohol or exercising for 4 hours after eating plant foods if you react to LTP containing foods (see the NHS website for more details).

Are all types of wheat a problem?

Some people with an intolerance to wheat, but not necessarily gluten, may not have a problem with other grains.  In fact, anecdotally, I know of individuals who have been unable to tolerate standard wheat products, but have been fine with less common varieties such as spelt.

As mentioned above, products associated with gluten contain two proteins (gliadin and glutenin) and the amounts of these proteins varies between products.  In fact, it can vary between varieties of the same product.  A 2021 study by Takac, et al, looked at the protein content of spelt and bread wheat.  The researchers found that:

  • Spelt contained a higher overall protein content than bread wheat varieties
  • Bread wheat had a greater Gluten Index level than spelt (but varied more amongst the spelt varieties)
  • The glutenin/gliadin ratio was greater in bread wheat than spelt wheat

Interestingly, the study also found that the results varied depending on where and how the wheats had been grown.  The researchers note that the results of other studies have contrasted with theirs.

Before trying a different variety of wheat, it is worth speaking to an appropriately trained professional and considering the severity of  your symptoms (you don’t want to risk aggravating problems!).  Changing wheat products would not be an option if you have Coeliac disease, and would not be recommended if you have a gluten sensitivity.

Wheat never used to be an issue – what’s changed?

Besides diagnostic developments and greater awareness, there may be some physical characteristics of wheat, or wheat-based products that have changed increasing the risk of problems.


In some cases it may not be the wheat itself that has contributed to problems.  It could be the way it is processed.  The Chorleywood Bread Process was introduced in 1961 so that bread could be produced in large quantities using lower-protein flour, quickly.  The speed comes from mechanisation, reduced proving and reduced baking time.  This means that the gluten does not have time to develop properly or be broken down sufficiently by fermentation.  If you have a home breadmaker you may produce bread using a similar process, requiring the addition of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), fat (butter) and yeast.  In traditional sourdough, the bacteria breakdown the proteins making the bread easier to digest for some people.

Of course, over time commercially available bread has had many other ingredients added to it which may not be beneficial for your health.

Limited diets

The quantity of wheat we consume may also contribute.  Wheat is the basis of so many common foods, and is an ingredient in many other processed foods that feature in the western diet.  It is easy to eat large amounts without even noticing.  For example, a daily diet may include:

  • a wheat-based cereal for breakfast
  • biscuits with the morning cuppa
  • a sandwich for lunch followed by cake
  • an afternoon biscuit and cuppa
  • pasta and garlic bread for tea followed by apple pie.

Every meal and snack in this diet example consists of at least one wheat product.  Can you relate to days like this?  How often do you plan your meals thinking about the amount of any one food type you are eating over the whole day?  This continual exposure to gliadin can mean that your tight junctions are open for a lot of the day!

General diet and lifestyle

It is possible that some of the problems we experience with wheat is due to other aspects of our diet affecting the health of our gut and digestion.  It is also possible that our lifestyle contributes, for example putting ourselves under constant stress.  If we do not take steps to support our health, we may be more susceptible to health problems that are not obviously attributable to our behaviours.

Is there anything good about wheat?

Yes!  Wheat provides a range of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) which we need to support our growth and repair processes amongst many other things.  It is also a source of B vitamins (including folate), calcium, magnesium and phosphorus.  Unfortunately when the wheat is processed to make white flour, much of the nutritious part is removed.

When eaten as wholegrain, wheat is a good source of fibre supporting our digestion.  However, while being good for digestion, the bran part of wholegrain wheat can have a laxative effect.

Bran may interfere with iron absorption due to the phytates present.  This means that anyone who has problems with low iron levels may need to be cautious about how much and when they eat wholegrain wheat, or bran.

References/Further Reading