Is Spelt Safe to Eat on a Gluten-Free Diet?

Spelt flour

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Spelt is a form of wheat and contains the gluten protein. Therefore, it is not safe for anyone who has celiac disease or any non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Spelt, spelt flour, and baked goods made with spelt are not safe on the gluten-free diet. The myth that spelt is gluten-free is one that persists despite the best efforts of many in the gluten-free community. Therefore, a little bit of background on spelt's pedigree is in order.

What Is Spelt?

Spelt is sometimes grouped with the so-called "ancient grains," The confusion may arise because some ancient grains, such as amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, and sorghum, are gluten-free. Spelt is ancient wheat. It has less gluten than modern wheat, but it is still a form of wheat.

Modern wheat goes by a variety of scientific names. All those names begin with Triticum, which means wheat. Triticum aestivum, also known as bread wheat or common wheat, is the variety cultivated by the vast majority of farmers worldwide.

The grain spelt is called Triticum spelta under its scientific classification. The Triticum gives it away immediately: spelt is a form of wheat.

Spelt has been cultivated in the Near East and elsewhere for at least the past 7,000 years and hasn't changed all that much since ancient times. Its form has largely stayed the same since it was first cultivated. Modern wheat, meanwhile, has been bred to maximize the gluten content, which makes the grain more effective in baking and other uses.

Spelt can be used in flour form for baking breads, cookies, and other pastries. In grain form, it can also be added to salads, soups, cereals, and even rice dishes such as risotto.

Is Spelt Safe to Eat If You're on a Gluten-Free Diet?

Spelt doesn't contain quite as much gluten as modern wheat, and it's actually a slightly different type of gluten. Nonetheless, if you have issues with gluten-containing foods, you'll want to avoid spelt, or you'll risk getting sick (many people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity have reported getting ill after mistakenly eating something with spelt in it). Choose a food made with gluten-free flour instead.

Evidence of reaction to spelt isn't just anecdotal. Medical researchers have looked at whether people with celiac disease will react to foods with spelt, and the answer is, yes, they will.

In one foundational study, published back in 1995, German scientists examined the genetic structure of spelt's gliadin protein (one of the components of gluten), comparing it to the gliadin found in modern wheat. They found some differences but concluded that people with celiac disease would react to spelt just as they react to modern wheat.

A second study, performed in 2007 in Italy, took two different lines of cells and mixed them in the laboratory with extracts of four types of wheat, including modern wheat, spelt, Einkorn wheat and farro wheat. The cells reacted badly to the modern wheat and the spelt, while the Einkorn and farro wheat didn't seem to lead to negative effects.

Another 2012 comparative study looked into the nutritional content of spelt and wheat and found that while spelt contains more protein and lipids than wheat, it has less fiber in its macronutrient makeup.

Based on the results of these studies and many others, it looks like spelt is pretty likely to lead to a glutening. Therefore, you'll want to steer clear if you're on a gluten-free diet.

Spelt Substitutes

If you're looking to stay gluten-free due to celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, you'll want to eliminate and avoid spelt in your diet. Instead, reach for any of the available gluten-free flour options to add into your baked goods.

Try amaranth, in flour or grain form, in your side dishes, soups, salads, or stews. It can also be used in baking as a substitute for other types of flour.

Sorghum, buckwheat, tapioca, and quinoa are other popular gluten-free grains you can include in a celiac-friendly diet, Finding grain alternatives when you're avoiding gluten doesn't have to limit you to only rice. In fact, there are many grains that allow you to avoid wheat while also bringing flavor and versatility to your diet.

7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson is a medical journalist and an expert in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the gluten-free diet.