Quinoa is grown in the Andes and is typically thought of as a grain. But that is a misnomer. Despite cooking up as a grain-like substance, quinoa is factually a seed from a plant similar to spinach and Swiss chard. Considering how healthy those two vegetables are, it is not then surprising that quinoa has a high protein content and contains all the necessary amino acids – making it one of those ‘near perfect’ foods that is nutritious, economical and easy to make. AND it’s gluten-free… or is it?
Hold on, before you stop reading because you think this is going to be depressing and you’re going to lose another of your ‘go to’ gluten-free staples, let me explain. The data that I’m about to present was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in August 2012. And I think that it’s important that you know.
The researchers, from Kings College in London, designed their study to analyze quinoa since little experimental data existed to support its safety as part of a gluten-free diet.
One of the reasons that quinoa has been on the gluten-free list is based on its protein content. Remember it is the protein in a food that tends to be problematic – gluten, more correctly gliadin, is a protein, as is casein, the problematic portion of dairy products. When someone ‘reacts’ or is allergic to a food, it is typically a reaction to the protein portion.
Wheat, barley, rye as well as non-glutinous corn, sorghum and oats, fall into the category of being high in something called prolamins.
What are prolamins? They are storage proteins that contain high amounts of the amino acids proline and glutamine – and are found standard in glutinous grains. It is known that prolamins may induce celiac disease and gluten sensitivity in susceptible individuals.
Quinoa is known to be low in prolamins, therefore it is little wonder that quinoa, with its low prolamin content, seemed a quite safe alternative on a gluten-free diet.
In this study the scientists looked at different cultivars of quinoa, 15 of them in all. A cultivar is a cultivated variety of a plant that is produced from a naturally occurring species and then maintained by cultivation. It turns out that different regions of the Andes produce different cultivars and it was the goal of this research to see if any of these cultivars had varying amounts of prolamin, enough that the immune system of a celiac-prone patient might react to it.
As mentioned, it is the protein portion of foods that can cause reactions to occur. When a substance such as gluten is causing a reaction, it’s called an antigen (think of it as a toxin to the body). The immune system tries to attack the toxin or antigen by making an antibody (it works against the toxin). The region on the antigen where the antibody attaches itself is called an epitope. Okay, done with all the new words!
In this study the researchers’ aim was to determine if any of the 15 cultivars contained prolamin epitopes (so it’s acting as a toxin and the body’s immune system has to attack it) in enough quantity to be deemed on par with a gluten-containing food.
Here are their results:
Of the 15 quinoa cultivars tested, 4 had measurable concentrations of toxic epitopes, but they were below the maximum permitted for a gluten-free food. In other words, the 20 parts per million (ppm) threshold of gluten that by definition allows a food to be deemed ‘gluten-free’, was not exceeded.
However, two cultivars, Ayacuchana and Pasankalla, did stimulate the immune system to react in a way that is comparable to a gluten-containing food.
What’s our take-away from this research?
1. In the main, quinoa seems to be a safe food, with most of its cultivars not causing the immune system reaction consistent with a gluten-containing food.
2. Four cultivars fell below the 20 ppm of gluten, but they still did contain enough of the protein to cause a reaction, albeit a mild one.
3. Two cultivars were downright bad – they causes a gluten response that was above the 20 ppm threshold and unfortunately acted upon the immune system consistent with someone who was eating gluten.
Here is what I tell my patients about quinoa:
First of all, I ensure that they have been gluten-free for long enough that we have mostly healed their gut. Then we do a trial with quinoa to see how they feel. Most people do fine, but not all. If someone has a reaction, we wait until they have ‘healed’ from the assault and then attempt it one more time. If they react again, we deem them sensitive to quinoa and recommend abstinence.
Finally, if someone is very suspicious and wants to know for sure, we can run a cross-reactivity blood test that tests for a quinoa reaction along with many other such foods whose protein structure can mimic gluten. It’s an excellent test and a great tool to be able to take someone to their desired next level of health.
While writing this piece I was curious to see if one could easily find out what cultivar a quinoa company used. An online search didn't yield any data, but I think it would be worthwhile to contact a company to see if they utilized either of the two cultivars mentioned above that caused a reaction.
It is possible that if those cultivars were avoided, a seemingly reactive individual might be able to tolerate quinoa quite well.
Do you react to quinoa, or do you enjoy it as a part of your gluten-free diet?
If anyone wants to do a little research and find out if any companies are forthcoming regarding the cultivars they use, please let me know. It’s definitely information I’d like to pass along.
I hope you found this helpful. Please let me know if you have any questions or if you need assistance to improve your health. Our destination clinic treats patients from across the country and internationally. If you want a free health analysis, contact us at 408-733-0400.
To your good health,
Dr Vikki Petersen, DC, CCN
Founder of HealthNOWMedical Center
Co-author of “The Gluten Effect”
Author of the e-Book: “Gluten Sensitivity – What you don’t know may be killing you!”
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2012 Aug;96(2):337-44. Variable activation of immune response by quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) prolamins in celiac disease.