Spelt has to be one of the most widely misunderstood, confusing grains out there when it comes to public perceptions regarding gluten-free diets.
How many of you, when informing others about your gluten intolerance or celiac disease, have been greeted with offers of spelt-based breads or have been asked questions about whether you can eat spelt?
As spelt has grown in popularity, it has become associated with “wheat-free” diets due in part to claims made on the packaging of some spelt breads. However, wheat-free is not the same as gluten-free… and it’s questionable whether spelt can even be considered wheat-free at all!
So is spelt safe for us to eat?
What Is Spelt?
Spelt is an ancient form of wheat that has been grown at least as far back as 5000 B.C. It played a role in the diets of ancient Greek and Roman societies. Spelt likely originated as a hybrid of even more ancient types of wheat such as emmer wheat and a goat-grass that grew wild in the Middle East. It is referred to in the Bible, though the biblical reference may actually be referring to a different type of ancient wheat. It has a nutty flavor and is frequently used in breads and in baked goods produced by “health food” bakeries. It is favored for its high fiber content.
Is Spelt Gluten-Free? Is it Wheat-Free?
Spelt contains a moderate amount of gluten. While it does contain less gluten than wheat, even a little gluten is too much to be safe for celiacs. Spelt is by no means gluten-free. In fact, the reason it is especially well-suited as a so-called “alternative” to whole wheat flour for use in breads and pastas is that it contains LOTS of gluten and therefore has a preferable texture to other whole wheat flour alternatives.
Here’s where the confusion comes in: for people who have mild, non-celiac gluten intolerance, spelt may be slightly easier to digest – and some people with true IgE-mediated wheat allergies (not to be mistaken for the autoimmune disease we call celiac disease) are not reactive to spelt.
Although spelt may be less allergenic for some people with a wheat allergy, many people who are allergic to wheat do react to spelt. Regardless, celiac disease is not an allergy – it is an autoimmune response to gluten proteins, which spelt contains. Any amount of gluten is too much for a celiac and can result in intestinal villi damage and resulting vitamin and mineral malabsorption. Therefore, spelt is as dangerous for people with celiac disease as wheat, barley or rye are.
The Moral of the Story
Spelt products should not be labeled as “wheat-free” since spelt is a form of wheat, like its cousins kamut and emmer. These “ancient grains” are also not gluten-free. The FDA has stated clearly that spelt products must have a wheat allergen warning. If a spelt, kamut or emmer wheat product is labeled as gluten-free or wheat-free by a manufacturer, the company in question could face disciplinary action from the FDA and litigation from consumers.
Celiacs and wheat allergic individuals must approach all “wheat alternatives” with skepticism until they have confirmed that those alternatives are indeed fully gluten-free.