The low-down on gluten

The difference between intolerance, sensitivity

Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. If neither of these sound familiar, perhaps the term gluten intolerance does as well. But with the growing awareness of different types of gluten sensitivity, it’s important to know the facts and be tested by a physician, if you think you have a reaction to gluten.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a mixture of two proteins that are present in wheat, rye, barley and possibly oats. According to dietitian Donna Poe of Monadnock Community Hospital, oats can sometimes contain gluten because of cross-contamination during the farming of oats. “They could be processed in an environment with gluten or grown next to a wheat field,” Poe said in an interview. She said there is still research going on today to discover if some oats, in and of themselves, contain gluten.

Gluten intolerance vs. sensitivity

Many individuals who experience discomfort or sickness after eating products with gluten may quickly assume that they are gluten intolerant. But as Poe noted, if someone does indeed have a complete intolerance to gluten, then they have a form of celiac disease. “It’s an autoimmune reaction in the small intestine,” Poe said about the disease.

Individuals with celiac disease are reacting to the protein in gluten, whereas those with a non-celiac gluten sensitivity are reacting to the carbs or sugars in the gluten-containing food. An individual experiencing gluten intolerance symptoms who has not been tested to confirm their condition, could be reacting to a number of things. Poe defined the other type of reaction to gluten by some as non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

For those who feel they can sometimes eat gluten or in small amounts, Poe said these folks should not self-diagnosis themselves as gluten intolerant. “If they are having a reaction to gluten, they may even have irritable bowl syndrome,” Poe said.

To form an intolerance to gluten, Poe said three things must happen. “You must carry the gene, you have to have eaten gluten in the past and you must have had an event in your life like pregnancy or an illness that changed the bacteria in your stomach.”

Similar reactions

For individuals with celiac disease, they cannot eat any product containing gluten or eat food that came in contact with gluten. The reactions to eating gluten for those with celiac disease and those with a gluten sensitivity can be similar, Poe said, so it’s important to inform your health care provider of your symptoms and get tested. The reactions to eating gluten include bloating and gassiness, and those with a form of celiac disease experience severe diarrhea.


To find out if someone has celiac disease or another type of condition associated with food sensitivity, Poe said it is essential to get tested by a doctor. “The first approach to test for gluten intolerance is a blood test, which will tell you if you carry the antibody,” Poe said. “A small intestine biopsy will confirm if someone has celiacs.”

How to eat safely

Diligent label reading is very important, Poe said. Usually at the bottom of the ingredients list, it will say in bold letters if a product contains allergens like wheat or barley. There are also lots of alternative grains that are safe for people with celiacs or a gluten sensitivity. Poe said that all rice is gluten-free and the healthy, ancient grain quinoa is also gluten-free. Poe said it’s important to balance your diet and eat lots of fruits, veggies, fresh poultry, meat and dairy. “I think the cost of gluten-free goods is coming down.” Poe added.

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