Getting Glutened by the Smell of Bread

A mere whiff of fresh-baked bread will not make you sick if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. That's because odor molecules, the tiny combinations of atoms that signal "bread" or "cookies" to our brains, don't contain the gluten protein. They're too small.

Your sense of smell works like this: lightweight chemicals evaporate off whatever it is that you're smelling (bread, chocolate chip cookies or skunk, for that matter) and bind with neurons at the top of your nasal passages, triggering the neurons to signal your brain that bread is baking or a skunk is near.

Humans actually can smell some 10,000 different odors and recall them later (the scientists who discovered this were awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize for their research). Genetic variations between humans cause different people to perceive the same odor in different ways.

Nonetheless, there's nothing in the odor of fresh-baked bread that can cause you to get glutened.

Close up of fresh baked bread and dough
Adam Gault / Getty Images

Am I Safe to Walk Into a Bakery and Inhale?

Not so fast. Although the odor is perfectly safe for us to smell, that same odor could indicate active baking is going on nearby ... and there you may have a problem, especially if you're more sensitive to gluten than average.

Wheat flour itself doesn't have much of a smell, I've seen some people describe it as similar to cardboard, but regardless, it's a pretty nondescript odor. So you probably won't notice (by smell, at least) if someone's using flour nearby.

But flour use in our immediate vicinity is a risk for us: particles of flour themselves can waft up into the air where we can inhale them (just picture dumping the flour in a bowl and watching it pouf up), and flour definitely contains gluten.

Bakeries and commercial kitchens that use lots of flour often wind up coated in a fine patina of flour dust by the end of the day. If you inhale some of that flour dust while it's still airborne, before it settles back on the counters and floors, you can get sick.

What About Baking Bread I Won't Eat?

It's a problem. Working with flour will practically guarantee a glutening, no matter how careful you try to be. The same applies if someone else in the house bakes bread, it's just not possible to contain the flour. So buy that "Fresh Baked Bread" scented candle instead (which is perfectly safe), and have your loved ones get their bread at the grocery store.

The Bottom Line

Don't panic when you smell wheat bread baking, you're not going to get sick from just a whiff of the smell. But take care not to hang around and wallow in nostalgia for that fresh-baked bread, either, since you could be loitering in an area with wheat flour dust in the air, and that can make you sick.

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