How to tell difference between Celiac disease and Gluten intolerance

The gluten-free diet seems to be the latest fad when it comes to dieting and healthy living – invite a group of friends to dinner and be sure that at least one of them will hold off one of your dishes because it’s not ‘free from’ something, probably gluten. The thing is, few people do suffer from some type of gluten intolerance, and fewer still suffer from Celiac. An interesting study published in Allergy, The European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, showed a considerable tendency for parents to diagnose allergies in their children which, when subject to appropriate allergy tests, their children did not actually suffer from. Could we be doing the same to ourselves?

Celiac Disease or Gluten intolerance?

How many of your friends have decided they are celiac and can only eat gluten-free food? What people sometimes haven’t understood is that there is a difference between celiac disease (CD) and gluten intolerance. They also are often not aware that avoiding gluten might come at a cost: a gluten-free diet could actually be depriving them of some important minerals and nutrients. Worse still, a gluten-free diet could also lead to weight gain – surprising but true! Often, gluten-free products might have other ingredients in them which add to the overall fat, calorie or salt content. These other ingredients are added order to enhance their flavors and make them as palatable and tasty as their gluten containing counterpart – for example, potato starch is often used in gluten-free products to replace flour but is actually higher in calories.

Another interesting study found that approximately one-third of NCGS patients continue having symptoms even after giving up gluten completely. It’s not exactly clear why this happens — it may be due to diagnostic error, poor dietary compliance, or other reasons — but it does show that we don’t really get gluten, or at least not as well as we think we do.

Celiac (sometimes spelled coeliac) is an autoimmune disease, affecting around 1% of the population. It is more common than lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, which fall into the same category. The disease affects our digestive system as well as other organs and parts of our body. It’s triggered by the eating of gluten, a mixture of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, and derivatives, with research indicating that there are also environmental factors associated with it. Still, family studies and twin studies have shown that celiac disease is largely hereditary. Family members sharing the same genotype as a direct, blood family member with celiac disease have a 40% chance of also developing the disease.

Whilst celiac disease is an autoimmune disease, it has far wider reaching side effects and consequences. It is a condition that can be pretty hard to diagnose – if you truly suffer from celiac disease, a genetic test could give you the answer you need.

The problem with gluten

Gluten is simply a protein found in flour and its many products and derivatives, giving wheat products that typical and characteristic elasticity and chewiness.

Some people can be either intolerant to gluten, sometimes referred to as non-celiac gluten intolerance (NCGI) or gluten sensitivity, or actually suffer celiac (and suffer from celiac disease). There’s a big difference between the to, and being celiac is far more serious than being gluten intolerant. You can be gluten intolerant but not have celiac disease, and that’s what happens in most cases. Celiac disease can have very serious consequences – the person’s immune system attacks its own intestine resulting in damage to the intestinal villi – small, finger-like structures which are important for the absorption of nutrients like water soluble vitamins. This damage is medically known as villous atrophy and can result in malabsorption or non-absorption of important nutrients which can lead to malnourishment. Now, on the other hand, gluten intolerance or sensitivity is, let us say, a different kettle of fish. Some physicians do not even believe gluten intolerance exists and others note that it differs from celiac disease because it does not trigger an autoimmune reaction and thus has nothing to do with it.

No-gluten Bread. Image via Max Pixel.

What is the Cure?

If you do suffer from Celiac, there’s not a cure per se. The only way to cure celiac disease is to eliminate all gluten from your diet, medicines etc. If you are gluten intolerant (not celiac), then you will get by with consuming gluten from time to time without too much discomfort (depending on just how intolerant you are). But don’t worry, this generally eliminates your symptoms entirely, and in most cases, even if you (rarely) eat gluten, you’ll still be fine. Overall, you will still need to avoid gluten-containing products if you are intolerant but you can “sin” from time to time.

Genetic testing for celiac disease?

So, if eating bread and pasta makes you feel bad, how do you know what you’re suffering from? Basically, the simplest and often best thing you can do is carry out a genetic predisposition test to confirm whether you carry certain genes that are known to be implicated in celiac disease. But besides genetic testing, there is also a blood antibody screening test which is widely used. The antibody test and the genetic test are, however, different. A blood test (serology test) looks at the levels of Tissue Transglutaminase Antibodies (tTG-IgA) antibodies in the blood. The antibodies are triggered in response to gluten ingestion. Positive results would suggest that the individual tested suffers from celiac disease. However, the test requires that the individual follows a gluten-containing diet – something which can cause a lot of discomfort for the celiac disease sufferer. For individuals on a gluten free diet, doctors might suggest a “gluten challenge” whereby small amounts of gluten are reintroduced in order for levels of antibodies to gradually increase in the blood. If levels of antibodies are too low, the test may give false negative results.

The celiac disease genetic test requires that you collect a DNA sample using mouth swabs and it is a very different test to the antibody test just discussed. To understand the disease on a genetic level we need to look at celiac DQ genetics – specifically the HLA DQ2 and DQ8. The genes responsible for celiac disease are those found on chromosome 6 where we have what is known as the Human Leukocyte antigen. The genetic variations HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 are the main genes responsible for celiac disease although there are some others. HLA-DQ2 gene accounts for around 95% of Celiac disease patients, whilst 5% have HLA-DQ8. The test may show the individual tested is at a high risk of being Celiac or developing celiac at any time in their life. This does not mean that at the moment of testing, the individual is a celiac sufferer.

The genetic test relies on a technique used in molecular biology known as Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) which enables the amplification of extracted DNA.

A celiac genetic test does not require that the individual follows a gluten free diet as the test looks at a person’s genes.  Once the genetic DNA test indicates you could be a celiac sufferer and may need to eliminate gluten.  Negative results for both HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 , mean that you have a 99% chance of not developing the disease.

Is there an ideal Celiac test?

It is important to note that HLA genetic testing is not the ideal test to confirm whether you are celiac or not. Still, there is no ideal test — it’s not like one is strictly better than the other. A doctor would likely suggest a combination of tests and advise on one test based on the results of a previous. A genetic HLA screening test will only show whether you have a high or low predisposition to the disease – you may or may not, at the time of testing, have developed celiac disease. It is however very useful as a test to exclude celiac disease if a doctor suspects you might have it. On the other hand, a blood (serologic) antibody test is a good screening test to start off. Neither of these tests is diagnostic.

The only procedure which is diagnostic is an endoscopic biopsy – this will determine, through analysis of an actual intestinal tissue sample, the extent of the damage caused by the disease and whether the damage observed is consistent with celiac disease.


Hidden gluten

Beer usually contains gluten, but not every type does. Here are a few gluten-free beers. Image credits: Fredo 93 / Wiki Commons.

There’s nothing inherently wrong in having a gluten-free diet, as long as you are aware of two things: first, you can’t self-diagnose yourself with celiac or gluten intolerance, you need a test for that, and second, you have to pay extra attention to gluten-free products. If you do get diagnose, what should you avoid? Well, the doctor will definitely give you a comprehensive list of what you can and can’t eat, but here’s a short list.

We know that cookies, cakes, pasta, bread crackers, and many more baked delights contain gluten. But gluten is a hidden ingredient in many foods and medicines. Watch out for things such soy sauce – it often contains gluten as it is made with wheat (besides salt, soy, and other ingredients). This means that even sushi in a restaurant might be a problem. You might want to consider taking your own little jar of gluten free soy sauce.

Those readymade soups: so tasty, quick and convenient and often also so high in gluten. Ice-cream is another well-loved treat that could contain gluten. Obviously, this is all the more obviously if you are eating a biscuit chip ice cream as the chips themselves will contain gluten. Other foods include sausages, preserves, cubes, toothpaste and dietary supplements.

Oats are funny in this regard. There is a common misconception that oats contain gluten. Well, this is not true… or rather, not really true. Oats are not naturally gluten-containing cereals in their natural state. But they do get processed in facilities that would naturally process other cereals and products that would contain gluten. This means that the oats will get contaminated with gluten from the machinery used in the processing plants.


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