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As Much as 20% of Wheat-Free Foods Contain Detectable Amount of Wheat Proteins

March 22, 2004 (San Francisco) -- One-fifth of common grocery foods labeled wheat-free or gluten-free may actually contain significant amounts of wheat protein, a concern for people with wheat allergies.

"Caution must be taken when eating foods labeled gluten-free," says Ashley Lardizabal, a graduate student at the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. She presented her findings at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Although frequently underdiagnosed, about one in every 150 people in the U.S. is affected by allergies to gluten -- found in rye, wheat, oats, and barley. Doctors call this condition gluten sensitivity or celiac sprue.

There is no single standard for defining a gluten-free product. Therefore, the researchers conducted their study to find out the levels of wheat proteins in all types of foods.

The researchers tested 140 different food samples purchased at the grocery store to see whether people who suffer from gluten sensitivity could safely eat them.

The researchers tested a variety of products likely to contain wheat, including gums, alcohol, soy sauce, vinegars, and malt liquors, as well as "wheat-free" products. Overall, 16% of the products tested contained wheat proteins.

Most disturbingly, Lardizabal reports that 20% of the products labeled wheat-free actually contained some wheat protein -- even exceeding current labeling guidelines for gluten-free.

In products considered non-wheat, such as chicken bouillon, corn cereal, and caramel ice cream topping, about 15% still contained some wheat proteins, most likely from cross-contamination during processing, she says.

All of the malt products contained wheat proteins; however, none of the alcohol products or gums contained any wheat protein.

"The good news is dietary choices are not as restricted as assumed," she says. "Food gums and distilled products are expected to be safe." However, patients with gluten sensitivity should not eat wheat starches, malt syrup, or extracts.

"This is in line with other studies that have shown there are contaminates," Wesley Burks, a professor of pediatrics at Duke University, who moderated the session, tells WebMD. "Be aware. If you are eating something that says it's wheat-free but [you're] having symptoms, talk to your physician."

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