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Is Quinoa Gluten-Free? Yes, But Recent Research Raises Questions for Celiacs

By Peter Olins, PhD and Gillian Olins, PhD on July 5, 2012

Quinoa is a highly nutritious substitute for wheat-based foods, and normally has “gluten” levels that meet the common standard of less than 20 ppm. A research study published on July 3, 2012, investigated the immune properties of 15 different cultivars of quinoa. V.F. Zevallos and co-workers confirmed the lack of “gluten”, but found that two varieties had unexpectedly high levels of immune reactivity on celiac disease cells, comparable to the levels found in wheat. This work suggests that the current ELISA test for gluten may not always accurately predict the safety of a food product for celiacs.

What is Quinoa?

Quinoa (pronounced “KEEN-wa”) is not a grain (like wheat, barley or rye). Instead, this seed is only very distantly related to the grains, and is actually a closer relative of spinach, amaranth and rhubarb (also tumbleweed!).

Quinoa has been grown as a food crop in the Andes for over 5000 years. The nutritional composition of quinoa makes it an attractive alternative to wheat; in fact, the proteins in quinoa actually have a more balanced range of amino acids, and include all the essential amino acids required for human nutrition (Ref. 1). Quinoa makes a great, mild-tasting side-dish, and offers fiber, folic acid and minerals often lacking in other gluten-free foods that are a critical part of the diet of people with celiac. Currently, most quinoa is produced in Peru and Bolivia, but the increased interest in this nutritious seed has prompted an increase in cultivation in North America.Is Quinoa Gluten Free?

Ref. 1: Saturni, L, et al. Nutrients (2010) 2:16-43. doi:10.3390/nu2010016 The gluten-free diet: safety and nutritional quality

What is Gluten? How is It Measured?

This question is actually harder to answer than you might think. The “gluten” protein in wheat is actually a complex mixture of over 100 closely-related proteins, and these proteins differ between wheat varieties. When gluten is consumed and digested in the stomach and small intestine, many small “peptide” fragments are created. Some of these peptides activate the “innate” immune system, and some of them activate the “adaptive” immune system, which results in celiac disease. Currently, there is no simple way to measure the amount of all these proteins and peptides, but an estimate can be obtained using a diagnostic test called an ELISA. This ELISA is used for detecting traces of gluten in foods, and most countries require that foods labeled as “gluten-free” have no more than 20 parts per million of gluten. Last year we published a blog entitled “Proposed FDA Standard for Gluten-Free Foods (20 ppm) May Not Adequately Protect the Food Supply for Celiacs“, and followed up with a “Letter to FDA on Labeling of Gluten Free Foods for Celiac Disease“. A key point was that although an ELISA test might give a precise value for the “gluten” content of a food, celiac consumers are more interested in how safe a food actually is. The research paper we discuss in this blog provides the first clear evidence supporting the idea that “ppm of gluten” may not be an accurate measure of the safety of a food for celiacs.

Is Quinoa Gluten Free?

Is Quinoa Gluten FreeSince quinoa is not a grain like wheat, rye or barley, by definition, it does not contain “gluten”. In addition, diagnostic tests that measure gluten in foods show that quinoa typically gives a very low reading for “gluten” levels. (As with all gluten-free foods, there is always a small risk of cross-contamination with wheat, barley or rye, but this appears to be rare for quinoa).

Quinoa does, however, have seed storage proteins in the “prolamin” family that are distantly related to the gluten proteins present in wheat. The obvious question is: are these storage proteins sufficiently similar to wheat gluten that they could cause an immune reaction in celiacs?

Is Quinoa Safe for People With Celiac Disease?

This question has not been investigated rigorously, but most authorities recommend quinoa as a safe and nutritious alternative to wheat-based foods. One 2011 research study (Ref. 2) tested the biological activity of two cereals (teff and millet), and two pseudo cereals (quinoa and amaranth). The first test used cultured T-cells derived from a celiac patient; the second used biopsy tissue samples from a celiac patient; and the third tested the grains in a mouse model of celiac disease. In all three cases, no immune cross-reactivity was observed, and the authors concluded that these various seeds were safe in the diet of celiac patients.

Ref. 2: Bergamo, P, et al. Mol Nutr Food Res (2011) 8:1266-1270. Immunological evaluation of the alcohol-soluble protein fraction from gluten-free grains in relation to celiac disease

Latest Research Shows That Some Varieties of Quinoa are Very Potent in Activating the Immune System of Celiacs

In contrast to the work described above, a research paper published two days ago by V.F. Zevallos and co-workers examined 15 different cultivars of quinoa, to examine their safety for people with celiac disease (Ref. 3). First, they tested the quinoa samples using an ELISA to test for “gluten” content. As expected, protein samples from all 15 cultivars gave gluten readings below the typical cutoff of 20 ppm (four samples gave a very low, but detectable signal).

Next, the proteins were tested for their biological activity, either using cultured T-cells or using biopsy samples obtained from celiac disease patients. The biological responses were monitored by measuring the production of two immune-stimulating substances (“cytokines”), IFN-gamma and interleukin 15. These cytokines are critical for the human immune response to gluten, and for the development of celiac disease. Remarkably, 2 out of the 15 quinoa cultivars (“Ayacuchana” and “Pansakalla”) stimulated an immune response that was as potent as that observed for wheat gluten! This result suggests that the current ELISA test used for detecting gluten in food may not be sufficient to predict toxicity of all foods in celiac patients.

What about the earlier study (Ref. 2) showing that quinoa did not activate cells and tissues from celiac patients? Unfortunately, we don’t have enough detail about the specific variety of quinoa used for that study. Obviously, this research will need to be repeated in different laboratories and with different samples of quinoa. However, this study calls into question the assumption that all varieties of quinoa are safe for celiacs.

This is very reminiscent of recent work done with different varieties of oats, which had widely varying cross-reacting activities with antibodies specific for wheat gluten.

Ref. 3: Zevallos, VF, et al. Am J Clin Nutr (2012) 10.3945/ajcn.111.030684 Variable activation of immune response by quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) prolamins in celiac disease

Conclusions About Gluten Free Quinoa

This blog is not meant to be alarmist, but is intended to provide an update on the potential safety of this important food. For now, quinoa remains an attractive and nutritious substitute for wheat.

Strictly-speaking, quinoa is indeed “gluten-free”. However, this latest research by Zevallos and co-workers provides the clearest evidence so far that the ELISA used for measuring “gluten” in foods may not be an accurate measure of the immune-stimulating activity of a given food, and therefore may underestimate the toxicity of “gluten-like” proteins in people with celiac disease.

Obviously, people differ widely in their response to gluten-containing foods: if you suspect that you might have had an adverse response to a given food, it’s important for you to discuss this with your dietitian or physician.

Finally, if you search the internet for the phrase “is quinoa gluten free“, you will find a strong consensus that this is a safe food for celiacs; but as in most aspects of science, the real world often turns out to be a bit more complicated than expected.

50 comments to Is Quinoa Gluten-Free? Yes, But Recent Research Raises Questions for Celiacs

  • Eva Conway

    Thank you frror this informative article. Thank you fror your suggestions for restaurants in Branson, Mo.

  • Jasmin Evans

    This dOes not surprise me. I have always felt like I had a roblem with Quinoa & spelt too.

  • Robert Kasperson

    This article makes some excellent underappreciated points. Gluten
    is not a protein, but a protein fraction: the part of grain that
    is soluble in alcohol but not water. CD is an immune response
    involving T-cells and B-cells. This makes it an autoimmune response
    and an allergy.

    What I expect is that different CD patients will react to different
    proteins. So if you repeated the T-cell tests with cells cultured
    from a different celiac subject, you will see other answers. Some
    will tolerate all varieties of quinoa and others react to some of
    them. So what you need is to test 15 (or more) varieties of
    quinoa against thousands of test subjects.

    In the meantime we should not lose sight of the need for elimination
    diets to determine our individual sensitivities. I have had to
    reject generic quinoa flour from a local health food store on this
    basis, but brand name quinoa flakes seem to be OK. It
    took six months of elimination diets to find this out. I attributed
    this to possible barley contamination, but a separate reaction to some
    varieties of quinoa is another possibility.

    • Peter

      Thanks, Robert.
      I agree that this work is preliminary, and will need to be confirmed with more extensive trials.

      Using an elimination diet is certainly a useful approach, but I would caution that just relying on personal symptoms may not fully reflect what is happening in the gut.

  • Celeste

    I recently wrote a blog post on my website about Ancient Harvest Quinoa pasta when I discovered that they were also making a whole wheat quinoa pasta. http://www.celestesbest.com/blog/2012/7/16/ancient-harvest-gluten-free-quinoa-pasta.html

    While researching to confirm that the pasta could not be cross contaminated during processing by their whole wheat product I found out something interesting.

    Another blog wrote about how some farmers cover their quinoa with barley and/or oats to keep the birds from eating the quinoa while it dries and that sometimes the sacks used to transfer the quinoa may have been previously used to hold barley or oats. Could this have anything to do with why some quinoa may have gluten content? I guess it’s possible.

    I’ve often wondered how many other crops might use similar practices we might not be aware of - makes you think. And Ancient Harvest has a great website and it’s FAQs answered many of my questions and their quinoa is gluten free and produced in a gluten free facility.

    I agree with you, too, we need to use our own bodies to help us decide which foods we may or may not be sensitive to and which we may need to eliminate from our diets.

    • Peter

      Hi Celeste,
      Yes, I’d heard about the occasional cases of contamination with oats, but I understand that this is very rare, especially from reputable suppliers. On of the main points of the blog was that certain varieties of quinoa might provoke an immune reaction, even though they’re “gluten-free”. I look forward to the point at which foods labeled as GF will have to show that they have been tested.

      So far, I have not been able to get any clear information about how common it is for these two varieties of quinoa to show up in commercially-produced quinoa. I’ll update this post if I get any more information.

      I understand what you are saying about listening to one’s body; however, for many celiacs, there can still be be hidden damage to the intestine without any obvious symptoms, which is why it is so important the have both the serum antibody test (i.e. anti-TTG) and a biopsy. As you may know, even now, not all doctors are willing to take sufficient biopsies to get a definitive diagnosis. You may want to read: Celiac Biopsy Guidelines Ignored by Some Doctors/ ).

  • Anna Jacobs

    I’m glad I found this website.

    I live mainly in Australia and have always had problems with quinoa (the sort sold in Australia, at least). I’ve been told (usually in a patronising tone) that I couldn’t possibly have a reaction to quinoa, so it’s good to know that I have justification. The doctor kept telling me at first that I could have oats too. Don’t I wish! There is a lot of misinformation out there.

    I’ve not been diagnosed as a coeliac because you have to go back on wheat to take the test, and I get such a dreadful reaction that I couldn’t do that.

    I now find there is a connection between coeliac/wheat intolerance and atrial fibrillation.

    What next?

  • Study Shows Quinoa May Not Be Safe for Celiacs | Gluten Free Help

    […] Ultimate Gluten Free: Is Quinoa Gluten-Free? Yes, But Recent Research Raises Questions for Celiacs http://ultimateglutenfree.com/2012/07/is-quinoa-gluten-free-research-questions-celiacs/ […]

  • Tara McKinty

    Thank you for this site…. Just to add to consumer experience reports, I , too have had a poor response to Quinoa, intestinal pain & nausea…. Enough to make me go looking for this site. Disappointing as I loved eating it.
    I have not confirmed a coeliac diagnosis for the common reason of not wanting to feel that ill.
    I am grateful that this site acknowledges the complexity for each individual living with allergies. I find people a little intolerant if I find I can ‘cheat’ with some gluten products without dire consequences, ie. not doughs with both flour and yeast like pizza or bread.

  • Kirsten

    SO glad I found your post on Quinoa! This makes so much more sense for me personally now that I read the research from your post. I have not been officially tested for Celiac no need because it’s clear I have a strong Gluten sensitivity issue. However, just last night had a dinner of Quinoa and was up a lot with stomach pains and issues which is very rare for me lately since I took Gluten out.

    Thank you so much for your post as it makes so much more sense ~ I agree with one of the posters above ~ we do not have definitive knowledge on many of these things. It iw so important that everyone understand their own body and it’s needs.

  • Sarah

    Great article! Pulls together a lot of information I had been looking for.

  • Victoria

    Thanks for the info in the article and comments. I’m NOT coeliac gene positive, neither did I show up as reactive on the blood test but when I eat wheat my joints get stiff and sore,especially in my hands, so I do avoid gluten but can get away with it occasionally. I found this blog because I wanted to check whether quinoa had gluten and mainly to try to understand the stomach ache it gives me. I tried it again today to see whether the reaction I had a few hours after eating it was in fact from the quinoa. Earlier this week I ate it and had quite severe gripey pain like a wide ring around my belly button and some diarrhea. Today I tried a smaller serve and sure enough, same stomach pain but milder. I’m posting this in case it helps someone with a similar response as it was helpful to me to read above that others mention intestinal pain etc. I’ve never had that reaction to a food before.

    • Peter

      Thanks, Victoria.
      As you probably know—but just in case some of our other readers might not—quinoa seeds are naturally covered in a soapy substance called saponin. Most commercially-available quinoa is pre-washed, but if not, this is very easy to do. Just rinse with cold water in a fine strainer. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quinoa#Saponin_content

  • robinski

    sorry if i missed the answer to the following question i have (i read the article and comments a few times)… what were the two varieties that caused immune responses? thanx!!!

  • Sherri Coldwell

    Tonight I made up some Vegetarian Quinoa Noodle Soup from Andean Dream. I took a spoonful to try it and felt some stomach spasms within minutes. I rechecked all labels and website then tried about 1/2 cup. I bloated and cramped up fast!! I emailed the company who replied minutes later to say they have no soy or gluten contamination and I should find another cause. I know it’s not my water!! This site supplies a scientific reason for my symptoms and I am very grateful. I tested negative to gluten response by RAST and after a 31/2 week return to wheat consumption biopsies did not support celiac disease. My sister was confirmed ( she was biopsied before diet changes). I did show sensitivities to several foods to varying degrees by Omega testing. I have my most severe symptoms with soy, which showed up as a slight response with RAST and severe with Omega. In addition, RAST heavily flagged oranges and dairy but neither cause me any complaints!! There is so much we don’t know about our reactions and the testing regimes used to diagnose them. These shared data and experiences are a big help in all the existing confusion. But, there is still much to be discovered. Thank you to all contributors.

  • Michelle

    My daughter and I both have gluten type reactions to quinoa and can’t eat it. I’ve tried every brand out there, washed and unwashed and it’s the same. Doesn’t make sense but it messes me up every time exactly as if it was wheat.

    • Peter

      Thanks, Michelle!

      Such a shame because quinoa is a versatile and highly nutritious alternative for so many people.

      Have you had any experience with nay of the other “exotic” grains, such as amaranth, millet, etc.?

  • Yvonne

    I am gluten free by choice because I found that wheat products cause bloating. I sprout my quinoa ( for those who may not know; soak, hang to dry in a cheese bag, rinse two or three times a day and it grows tails in about two days). Do you think this would make a difference for those who say that have stomach aches, and other reactions?

    • Peter

      Thanks, Yvonne.
      As far as I know, it is quite unusual for people to have a negative reaction to quinoa—do you have any other information that you can share on quinoa? What I wanted to communicate in the blog was that a couple of unusual varieties of quinoa differ from the rest. I should also stress that these were laboratory-scale tests, and have not been validated by feeding to people.

      Since we don’t know the exact mechanism of immune stimulation in these two quinoa varieties, it’s impossible to say whether sprouting would help (I’m assuming you mean eating the quinoa raw). However, as you probably know, in most cases, foods eaten raw are much harder to digest, resulting in reduced absorption of nutrients by the intestines. In addition, cooking will often inactivate proteins and other molecules that can have unpleasant or even toxic effects. One theory of human development suggests that human brains were only able to grow as large as they are now because of the substantially increased quality of cooked foods—in other words, the discovery of fire may have had a major effect on our intellectual development.

  • Fernando

    Robert Kasperson commented “Gluten is not a protein, but a protein fraction: the part of grain that is soluble in alcohol but not water”…so does this mean alcohol in your intestines is breaking down the gluten? Can someone answer this question?

    • Peter

      Hi Fernando,
      Sorry if this was confusing. In the early days of research on wheat (about 80 years ago) it was found that some proteins (including what we now call the “gliadin” portion of gluten) can dissolve in alcohol, but dissolve poorly in water. I wasn’t meaning to imply that there is alcohol in intestine — and no, there is no evidence that a shot of whisky will trigger celiac disease ;~)

  • Armstrong

    Recently, my new doctor suggested that I take some supplements that were manufactured to his standards. One of the ingredients in the “delivery system” was quinoa sprouts. A blood serum test done by my previous health care person showed that quinoa was a “cross reactor” to gluten for me. In other words, my body thinks that Quinoa has gluten because the molecular structures have similarities. While I have had no noticeable reaction to quinoa, my blood had antibodies to quinoa. My question is: Do quinoa sprouts contain the protein in the form that it is in a mature quinoa plant? Would it be safe to take this supplement with quinoa sprouts? I was diagnosed with celiac diseas without a biopsy 3 years ago.

    • Peter

      Hi Armstrong,
      It’s hard to respond without knowing more detail, and in any case, medical decisions should be made between you and your gastroenterologist or general MD. This blog is not intended to provide medical advice.

      However, from my reading of the available scientific literature, the presence of IgG antibodies that react to foods are very common, and I am not aware that this is a good predictor of actual food sensitivity. (There is a lot of confusion about this topic, so I should probably write a blog about it). Even IgE antibodies, while suggestive of a food allergy are not sufficient for a diagnosis, as far as I know. The idea of cross-reactive antibodies is an interesting hypothesis or speculation, but again, I can’t find any actual published evidence to support it. (Of course, if you have any, please let me know).

      Coming back to your question about seeds versus sprouts, it’s hard to generalize, but I think it’s fair to say that many of the proteins present in seeds will still be present in sprouts. From your earlier comment, it sounds as though you do not have a reaction to quinoa.

      Coming back to the original blog, the key point was that quinoa is very distantly related to wheat, and has an extremely low level of “gluten”. A couple of varieties have a totally unrelated protein (ATI) that appears to have some immune stimulating activity that is quite distinct from that of gluten.

      Overall, since many people find it hard to achieve balanced nutrition on a gluten-free diet, quinoa offers an excellent range of nutrients, and its mild flavor allows it to be used in a wide variety of dishes.

  • Alexis

    Quinoa’s current status as the trendy food has made it too expensive for the people of the Andes to buy it. They have cultivated quinoa for 5,000 years and it is the staple of their diets, and now they can’t get it for themselves. That alone makes me refuse to buy it and join the fad.

    Oatmeal/oats is also not tolerated by many people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. It’s not just cross-contamination either. Your gut may be so damaged by gluten that it can’t process any complex grain or leaf.

    • Peter

      Hi Alexis,
      You raise a topic that has occurred many times over history: should farming be simply for subsistence, or should crops be sold in order to achieve greater economic potential for the farmer? If you believe that farmers should not sell their crops, then what system would need to be in place to enforce this, and who would have the moral right to make economic decisions for others? Do you have any specific information about the social and nutritional impact of quinoa export to share on this thread? My hunch is that a transition from subsistence farming to a cash crop may also provide an incentive to find ways of improving productivity, since higher profits can be invested in the farm. I also note that there is an increasing amount of quinoa being grown outside the Andes, and I suspect that this could have the effect of depressing wholesale prices.

      I personally hope that quinoa consumption will not be a fad, since it offers an excellent nutritional profile for rich or poor people, alike. The main limitation to its adoption come from a lack of familiarity and a lack of recipes and cooking techniques.

      Regarding oats, my understanding is that oats are not recommended for celiacs shortly after being diagnosed, perhaps because their high fiber content may not be well tolerated, rather than to a similarity between oat avenin protein and wheat gluten. However, from the studies I have seen, in the long run, oats offer a safe and nutritious option for almost all celiacs.

  • Kelly

    With the help of my Dr I have identified & eliminated Wheat after realizing it was the cause of my
    arthritis type symptoms. Now that I feel better than I have in 20 years I can tell when
    a food has affected me..The stiff morning feeling like a truck hit me is the first thing I feel..
    Followed my a return of my neck & toe pain that was chronic before I went wheat free..

    Last night I was so excited to have a dish over a small serving of Quinoa pasta . I
    was dreaming of all the things I could enjoy with this type pasta. But this morning
    those old “body aches” are back.

    Your article gives me clues about why my body might react this way..
    Quinoa is out for me !!

  • Sharon

    I do not have celiac but I am gluten sensitive. I discovered it myself after being under the care of a rheumatologist for 20 years. Last year !i tested myself by living withoutt glutton and all the joint and body pain disappeared. I was thought to have arthritis and fibromyalgia along with other possible immune disorders. I no longer need pain relief. I am doing the clean gut 21 day cleanse. Quinoa was allowed as long as you ate it vegetarian….with no meat. I chose a receipie with that and had a major joint flare up. Thats how I found this article, I was searching to see if there was any information on it. I also learned it is related to tumbleweed, I am highly allergic to that also. I am posting my experience in hopes it is a help to others.

  • […] Quinoa contains essential amino acids, calcium, iron and phosphorus, and is a naturally gluten-free seed. When harvested, the grains are coated with saponins which taste bitter. Always read the package instructions to see if pre-rinsing is necessary before cooking. […]

  • […] to barley, but some breweries have been experimenting with a variety of other seeds, such as rice, quinoa, millet, or buckwheat. Depending on your individual taste preferences, these beers may or may not […]

  • Is Quinoa #Gluten Free? | TrulyGlutenFree

    […] just written a post about this very tricky and confusing question. Dr O got much of the info from this article, I believe, so click through to read the whole piece. I have written about it before […]

  • Rachel

    I Was Diagnosed With Coeliac Disease A Year Ago With Endoscopy, And Just Made Quinoa For The First Time Last Night! It Tasted Great But I Felt A Bit Bloated Afterwards…. Just Put It Down To Eating Too Much. But I Just Had Some More Today And It Made Me Really Ill, Stomach Cramps Etc. I Don’t Normally Get This Bad A Reaction From Anything Except Gluten-Containing Pizza And Pasta.
    I Forgot To Rinse It First As The Packet Said I Should, But Surely That Can’t Cause Such A Harsh Reaction?? Don’t Think I’ll Be Trying It Again For Quite A While! Also I Had A Blood Test A Few Weeks Ago Which Showed Up Positive For Endomysial Antibody, Do You Know If This Can Be From Things Like Quinoa Which Are Gluten-Free But Still Cause The Reaction?

    • Peter

      Hi Rachel,
      Many seeds such as quinoa are coated in bitter, soapy substances called saponins, which help protect them against being eaten by insects. Saponins are irritating to the lining of the intestine. Many quinoa manufacturers pre-wash their quinoa, but if this hasn’t been done, rinsing vigorously under running water (e.g. in a sieve) should do the trick. Rarely, quinoa can be cross-contaminated with grains such as barley, so make sure you use a brand which tests for gluten contamination.

      I would not expect quinoa to trigger a rise in Endomysial Antibody. However, if your antibody levels are still high one year after diagnosis, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re probably being exposed to significant amounts of gluten.

      (As always, this site is not intended to provide specific medical advice, and you should always consult with your physician about any concerns about your disease).

  • Q is for… | V-Spot

    […] Where do I start? There is so much good to say about quinoa, it contains heart-healthy fats, it’s a vegetarian source of protein, fibre and B vitamins. It’s super high in manganese, typtophan, magnesium, folate and phosphorus making it an ideal choice for women’s health in particular (source). It’s known mostly for being anti-inflammatory food choice and contains a good proportion of vitamin E which is good for you skin, hair and nails among other things. Oddly enough it’s one food that doesn’t have a drastic drop in nutrients once it’s cooked, so start subbing your grains with quinoa today! It’s primarily gluten-free only people with severe gluten allergies may have difficulties with some quinoa depending on how it was processed. For more information on how it may affect you if you are gluten-intolerant please check out this article. […]

  • michele

    Yes. Makes sense. I’m not celiac but I’m gluten free for other health reasons. I just made quinoa for the first time and I didn’t feel very well. Confused as I thought it was gluten free, stumbled across this article! Thank you.

  • Kim

    I had quinoa on Friday evening and woke up Saturday not feeling so good I eventually became queasy to throwing up , etc.and was sick all day Saturday. I do have celiac disease and felt encouraged to see your article. I don’t mind avoiding quinoa and that was really the first time I had eaten it. I believe it definitely created a strong reaction in me. Really appreciated the information that gluten like proteins can create an immune response. I believe. : ) Thanks for your work !

    • Peter Olins

      Thanks, Kim.

      I just wanted to clarify a couple of points. In this preliminary research, an immune reaction was only provoked by certain varieties of quinoa: there’s no evidence that this is a property of quinoa in general. In fact, most celiacs find that quinoa is an excellent food source. Also, there is no evidence to think that the effect is caused by a substance related to gluten. Finally, as you probably know, quinoa seeds are coated with a soapy substance called saponin, which needs to be washed off: otherwise this can cause gastrointestinal symptoms. Commercial brands will often mention on the package that the quinoa has been pre-washed.

  • Billy-Joe Starr

    I was told to eat Quinoa as the super food. I have been ill, nauseus, bloated, stomach cramps. I am not coeliac? Maybe I should get tested. It has been a very unpleasant experience. I have tried mixed quinoa seeds, and quinoa oats for breakfast. Very painful stomach and cramping

    • Peter Olins

      Hi Billy-Joe,

      Quinoa is a nutritious and safe food for most people, including celiacs. As with any food, there is the possibility of food-allergy. In addition, most commercial quinoa has been washed to remove a soapy substance that the plant produces, but you can always rinse it thoroughly if you are concerned about this.

      Regarding celiac disease, this is most closely associated with eating wheat (or barley or rye), which is part of almost everyone’s diet. My article about quinoa related to a rare effect seen with specific varieties, and it’s not clear if this effect is the same as celiac disease.

      As with any situation like this, the best thing would be for you to visit your physician.

  • Lori

    I do not have CD but gave up gluten due to Hashimoto’s disease (thyroid). I have been eating a fair amount of quinoa (washed, unwashed, cooked, flour, pasta) and do not seem to have any adverse reactions. I was wondering if the two types of quinoa you mentioned could trigger the Hashimoto’s immune response? Also, how in the world do you find out what kind of quinoa a product has in it?

    • Peter Olins

      Hi Lori, Thanks for your comment.

      I can’t find any evidence that the gluten trigger for celiac disease also plays a role in other autoimmune diseases, such as Hashimoto’s. (This is contrary to what you may read on some sites on the Internet). Unfortunately, autoimmune diseases have a strong genetic element, meaning that if you have one, there is an increased risk of having another.

      As far as quinoa goes, it’s important to note that no-one has extended the research-level observations on two particular varieties to show that they are relevant to actual celiac patients. The purpose of the blog was to alert people that the triggers of immune responses may be more complex than we previously thoughts, and to highlight that a couple of varieties of quinoa might might be more of a concern for celiacs. You would need to contact suppliers directly for more information about their sources.

      You also mention that you eat unwashed quinoa (most commercial quinoa is pre-washed). This may be just fine for some people, but it is important to note that the soapy coating on quinoa can cause gastrointestinal irritation, regardless if you are celiac or not.

  • Eric Brooks

    Quinoa & Sleeping Limbs

    Wow! I found this site because I was researching a very particular problem that seems to be triggered in me by quinoa - and the main post and messages here are not only spot on - but I can also contribute some very interesting anecdotal evidence to them.

    I am definitely wheat intolerant (probably due to gluten) and I get a lot of gnarly symptoms if I don’t avoid wheat; such as badly stuffed up sinuses and having to constantly clear my throat, as well as bad gastrointestinal problems, etc.

    But the symptom that relates specifically to this topic, is that when I eat wheat, my arms and legs tend to fall asleep very easily.

    Now, as many of you have, I sometimes eat quinoa thinking it is better. Well it -is- a lot better in some ways, and a lot of the symptoms that I get with eating wheat products, I do -not- get as badly, or at all, when I eat quinoa (such as the sinus trouble and throat clearing).

    But the symptom I definitely -do- get after I eat quinoa is that same propensity for my arms and legs to easily fall asleep…!

    Anyone have any idea why that particular symptom would be triggered by both wheat and quinoa?

    PS: There is a -local- multicolored organic quinoa from California that I have been eating which I notice doesn’t seem to cause that problem. So as noted above, not all quinoas may be created equally.

    I buy that seemingly more benign multicolored quinoa at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco in the bulk section. It is labeled as California local and can be recognized by the fact that when you rinse it a -lot- of dirty water comes off of it. So if you want to try different quinoas try that one. I’m pretty sure I have been having better luck with it.

    However, when I switched to an imported black organic quinoa the sleeping limbs problem came right back. And it is also triggered by the standard organic white quinoa that is so commonly available.

    So there’s my anecdotal evidence. Hope it helps some of you out there, and perhaps stirs some research.

  • Eric Brooks

    By the way, I should have also mentioned that I seem to have the same sleeping limbs reaction to millet (along with elevated pulse rate) so I also avoid millet.

  • Christopher

    Such great and important information. Thank you so much for this. We’re using quinoa in a “gluten-free” dish in our new catering business, so all of this is very interesting.

  • Seed

    Thanks Peter for this article. I have been wanting to try Quinoa for a while, but I think I will steer clear now. I avoid all grains, even the so-called ‘gluten-free’ ones as I have Non-Celiac-Gluten Sensitivity and an intolerance to casein (dairy protein). Thank you for mentioning that quinoa has seed storage proteins in the prolamin family - this is a real concern for me as I don’t believe I just react to gliadin.

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