According to the U.S. FDA, wheat starch is gluten-free as it is a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to remove gluten. Before we can fully answer the question, is wheat starch gluten-free, we first need to understand what is wheat starch? I personally am wary of anything with the word “wheat” in the ingredients list and you may be as well, so read on to learn more.

How is wheat starch related to wheat?

Wheat starch is a processed substance that comes from whole grain wheat (also known as the wheat kernel). Wheat starch is created by removing the bran and germ of wheat – which includes the nasty gluten proteins – so that only the endosperm’s starch remains in powder form. So, what is an endosperm? Let’s get all sciency for a moment.

Oldways Whole Grains Council explains that whole grains are made up of three parts:

  1. The bran is the multi-layered outer skin of the edible kernel. It contains important antioxidants, B vitamins and fiber.
  2. The germ is the embryo which has the potential to sprout into a new plant. It contains many B vitamins, some protein, minerals, and healthy fats.
  3. The endosperm (where wheat starch is derived from) is the germ’s food supply, which provides essential energy to the young plant so it can send roots down for water and nutrients, and send sprouts up for sunlight’s photosynthesizing power. The endosperm is by far the largest portion of the kernel. It contains starchy carbohydrates, proteins and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

What is wheat starch and how is it made?

  • Wheat starch is a processed substance made from the endosperm of wheat grain. The endosperm is the protective barrier for the embryo (also known as the germ) of the wheat grain.
  • Wheat starch is made by “washing” the wheat grain to remove the bran and germ of the wheat grain.
  • Wheat starch is commonly used as a texturizer or thickener.
  • Wheat starch is also used in some commercial sweeteners.

Whether or not wheat starch is entirely gluten-free and whether it is safe for people with celiac disease and other gluten sensitivities is a matter of active discussion. Under the FDA guidelines for labeling, wheat starch is allowed in gluten-free products as long as the level of gluten is 20 parts per million (ppm) or less for the whole of the resulting product.

If you’re located in the United States, wheat starch is not a common ingredient found in food products. However, it’s common for Coeliacs in Europe to see gluten-free wheat starch or wheat starch on product packaging. Wheat starch in Europe falls under European Commission food labeling laws.

U.S. FDA: How is “gluten-free” defined?

In general, foods may be labeled “gluten-free” if they meet the definition and otherwise comply with the final rule’s requirements. More specifically, the final rule defines “gluten-free” as meaning that the food either is inherently gluten free; or does not contain an ingredient that is:

  1. a gluten-containing grain (e.g., spelt wheat);
  2. derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat flour); or
  3. derived from a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat starch), if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten in the food. Also, any unavoidable presence of gluten in the food must be less than 20 ppm.

U.S. FDA Sec. 101.91 Gluten-free labeling of food.

Why should you be cautious of consuming wheat starch?

  • The amount of potential gluten in a product can be hard to measure consistently (see details on ELISA below)
  • Cross-contamination is a risk even if the wheat starch has been processed from the gluten-containing wheat so that it is gluten-free
  • NO amount of gluten is safe for people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance

The extremely knowledgeable Tricia Thompson of Gluten Free Watch Dog recommends the following if you choose to eat foods made from wheat starch:

  • The product is labeled gluten-free
  • The manufacturer and/or supplier are testing wheat starch for gluten using both the sandwich and competitive R5 ELISAs

What is ELISA?

You may have heard the term “ELISA” used in identifying gluten in products. What does ELISA stand for and what does it mean in relation to keeping the foods we eat gluten-free? I equate the ELISA test to a pre-employment drug test. ELISA is checking to see if there is gluten present? And if so, how much?

In pharmaceutical terms, ELISA stands for “enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay”. ELISA is an antibody-based test method. According to R-Biopharm, the Sandwich ELISA and the Competitive ELISA are used to detect gluten by:

  • The Sandwich ELISA detects only intact proteins and large fragments with at least two binding sites.
  • The Competitive ELISA is able to detect large and small protein fragments with only one binding site. For this reason, the competitive ELISA can also be used for highly processed food products.

When it comes to wheat starch and whether it’s an acceptable part of your gluten-free diet, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Whether wheat starch is acceptable for your personal gluten-free needs is a topic you should discuss with your doctor.

What are your thoughts on wheat starch? Do you (or would you) consume it? Share with the Hold the Gluten Community in the comments below!

Side note: Despite its name, buckwheat isn’t related to wheat at all and is totally gluten-free!