The airborne gluten debate

It’s no debate that those with celiac disease are extremely sensitive to wheat and other gluten-containing grains. Yet there is still a lot of speculation when it comes to being exposed to airborne gluten. Is it safe to be around? Will it cause a reaction? Is it a legitimate concern for celiacs?

When I say airborne gluten I’m not talking about large bread crumbs flying everywhere as someone cuts a baguette – I’m talking flour. Because flour is made up of very small particles it becomes easily airborne. Think back to the last time you were pouring flour into a measuring cup, or sifting it. There is always a flurry of particles that can be seen floating around on a sunny day in the rays of light. This close proximity to flour is a threat to someone with celiac disease as the tiny particles can be inhaled and swallowed. From there they work their way down the GI tract to the small intestine where they set off a reaction.

But there are other threats to celiacs besides home-baking. There is a large debate whether being in a bakery will affect those with celiac disease as well. From personal experience I would have to say that it does.

There have been two occasions that I have been in a bakery (once being near the bakery counter at my local grocery store), and I’ve become ill. In both instances there were signs that flour was in the air – one, because it lined the floors, and two, because I could smell it. This brings up another question as to whether people with celiac disease are affected by the smell of gluten in the air.

Despite many in the medical community stating that smell cannot cause a reaction in celiacs, I beg to differ. The first time I ever had a reaction at a bakery I became extremely nauseous and had to leave after walking around the bakery for a few minutes with my mother. At no time was I anywhere near the area where they made the baked goods, so inhaling flour seems unlikely. But I do have a theory based on smell and memory. As many know, smell is said to be one of the most memory-evoking senses. Because gluten-containing products severely affect those with celiac disease I believe that they can trigger a memory-related response when smelled, ultimately causing a feeling of sickness. In a way, the smell creates a type of placebo effect which in turn mimics the symptoms of celiac disease. There are still many times I smell gluten-containing bread or pizza baking and my stomach goes for a loop.

But of course this is just a theory. All I know is that being near flour is a big no-no for someone with celiac disease. So my rule of thumb… If you can smell the flour, run!




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