Is Quinoa Gluten-Free? Is a Pseudo-Grain Safe?

Quinoa grain and gluten-free

Quinoa, (pronounced keen-wah) is a tasty and healthful seed packed with protein, carbohydrates, fat, and micronutrients (1). This naturally gluten-free, pseudo-grain continues to gain popularity for its taste and health benefits (2).

Read on to learn more about quinoa and how to ensure this ancient grain purchase fits your gluten-free diet to help increase the health of your immune system.

What Is Quinoa?

Quinoa is a nutrient-dense seed crop cultivated primarily in South America in the Andes (3).

This look-a-like grain dish is often used in place of rice or couscous. People, especially those with diabetes or those who follow a vegan diet are encouraged to try quinoa due to its high-quality, complete protein content. This seed is perfect for those in need of meal-prep for gluten, nut, dairy, and soy-free diet.

The additional plant-based protein in quinoa helps with blood sugar control and satiety more so than brown rice. People who follow a vegan diet may fall short of meeting the estimated nutrient needs for the “limiting amino acid” lysine, luckily quinoa can help (1).

There are nine essential amino acids that cannot be made by the body and must be consumed through the diet. This includes lysine which is needed to create protein, enzymes, and hormones.

Lysine also helps the body absorb calcium and create elastin and collagen, which are key nutrients for healthy skin (4).



What’s in Quinoa?

Fortunately, 1 cup of quinoa provides 8 grams of protein and 442mg of lysine. 180 grams of quinoa contains B vitamins, copper, zinc, magnesium, manganese, and selenium. This allergen-free food is a delicious dish packed with prolamin, a plant-based protein.

More reason to eat this superfood? Selenium plays an important role in thyroid health.

The nutrition content of quinoa far exceeds most gluten-free grains and can be used as a healthful main dish or side dish.

Is Quinoa GF?

Gluten-free quinoa

Naturally, quinoa, like brown and white rice, is a GF and wheat-free grain. However, for people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, it is important to make sure that the quinoa purchased is certified gluten-free.

Purchasing items from a gluten-free facility can also help to prevent cross-contamination. Therefore, it is important for celiac patients to pay close attention to the ingredient label.

The primary medical advice for individuals with celiac disease is to abstain from all gluten-containing products (5). This includes GF products that may have been cross-contaminated with gluten even if the product may be a naturally gluten-free grain.

However, quinoa can be a part of your gluten-free eating plan. Gluten is made up of two primary proteins: gluten and gliadin and can be found in wheat, barley, and rye (6). Quinoa grown in fields next to wheat cultivation or processed on the same equipment as gluten-containing products are not gluten-free.

When selecting items at the grocery store it is extremely important to look for the black and white certified gluten-free label to confirm that your quinoa suits your gluten-free diet.

If celiac patients consume this can elicit an immune response and cause villous atrophy. That intestinal destruction can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies since the intestines are damaged and unable to absorb micro and macronutrients as efficiently.

Is Quinoa Inflammatory? 

People should add quinoa to their diet if well tolerated because it contains natural anti-inflammatory benefits. 

This nutrient-dense food is packed with antioxidants. My personal favorite is red quinoa mixed with veggies such as spinach and red onion. I love to top off that veggie-packed dish with a drizzle of olive oil and basil, this adds to the natural nutty flavor of quinoa seed. 

 Quinoa nutrients including phytochemicals, polyunsaturated fats, and high-quality plant protein that can help to provide protection against inflammation. Researchers have shown that higher intakes of quinoa can decrease inflammation (7).

However, if it is not GF it can trigger an immune response such as inflammation in individuals with celiac disease which is an auto-immune disease, not an allergy.

Is Quinoa Safe to Eat for People with Celiac Disease? 

Quinoa seed and quinoa flours are wheat free foods and safe as long as the package is labeled certified gluten-free by GFCO. However, it is important to remember that certified GF products may contain 10ppm or less of gluten. Packages labeled gluten-free without the official label may contain up to 20ppm of gluten. 

These small amounts of gluten can add up and can potentially cause harm to the intestinal tracts of celiac patients. It is important to keep track of brands, foods, and restaurants where you experience negative symptoms. 

Remember to self-advocate at restaurants by asking for a GF menu and telling the staff that you have celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), gluten ataxia, dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), or a wheat allergy. You can also call restaurants ahead of time to ensure that your gluten-free diet needs can be met. 

There is more risk for cross-contamination when going out to eat so be sure to communicate your needs. You can also try out the Nima sensor to test to see if your food is GF (8). Although, quinoa labeled GF should be safe for most celiac patients.

Side Effects

Be sure to wash your quinoa before cooking to get rid of saponin compounds. Saponin compounds can potentially cause stomach pain and decrease the bioavailability of nutrients in quinoa (9).

 Although your quinoa may be labeled gluten-free, it is important for celiacs to remain cautious. Cross-contamination can occur if your pots, restaurants, or the manufacturer exposed the GF quinoa to a surface with gluten. If you experience any bloating, diarrhea, or other issues stop eating quinoa. 

 If you have celiac disease, it is recommended that you continuously follow up with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with expertise in celiac disease in addition to your physician. 

Other Gluten-Free Grains

If you have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease it helps to supplement your diet with gluten-free grains. Grains are an excellent source of vitamins, fiber, and minerals. Below are is a list of cereals, seeds, and gluten-free grains to help your GF diet feel less restrictive. 

Buckwheat

Contrary to the name, buckWHEAT, this grain is free of gluten, wheat-free, and an excellent source of thiamine. 

 Buckwheat is often eaten in noodle form, you may know it as a Japanese soba noodle. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat and water although sometimes wheat flour is mixed into the dough so be cautious if you follow a gluten-free diet. You can also try Bob’s Red Mill GF buckwheat groats of GF cornmeal to create GF breakfast porridge (10).

Millet

Millet is a gluten-free grain similar to quinoa. Studies have shown that it contains a flavonoid called quercetin which decreases inflammation, helps to control blood sugar levels, and prevents heart disease (12).

This cereal grain that can be ground into a powder to create delicious vegan, pancakes free of gluten. If you have a milk protein allergy or any other food allergies, try using millet flour to re-create your favorite baked goods. This gluten-free grain also tastes great in savory dishes cooked up with red onion and a drizzle of olive oil. 

Amaranth

Amaranth is a pseudocereal that is safe for people who need a diet free of wheat, barley, and gluten. This wheat-free food is one of the few of the protein containing “grains” and it looks similar to quinoa. Amarnath was also a food staple for the Aztecs (13).

Although quinoa and amaranth are nutritionally and aesthetically similar they taste different. Most people find that amaranth has a much stronger flavor than quinoa. If palatable to you, this grain substitute is loaded with fiber, and because of this, it may be effective for lowering cholesterol levels. 

You can also heat amaranth to form GF grain puffs or to sprinkle of a morning bow of yogurt and berries for extra prolamin. 

Whole Oats

Oats are often contaminated by sharing processing equipment with other gluten-containing grains. Although your bowl of oatmeal stems from a gluten-free grain the manufacturing of the product may not be safe for your gluten-free diet.

If you wish to continue eating oats be sure they are certified GF. Bob’s Red Mill packages certified gluten-free oats for stores across the states. Celiac shoppers often recommend this brand for higher risk GF items such as oats, quinoa, corn, and other naturally gluten-free grains. 

Thankfully you can still enjoy your morning breakfast cereal while avoiding gluten-containing grains, although it may come with a higher price tag. You can also try out a quinoa breakfast cereal recipe if you do not have GF oats on hand.

Teff

Teff is a GF grain commonly consumed in Ethiopia to create bread (14). This thin Ethiopian flatbread is called injera. You can also find teff as an ingredient in many GF bread products. Teff is a great source of calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. It also contains B vitamins such as pantothenic acid.

Teff has a light, earthy flavor that can coexist in almost any sweet or savory GF dish of your choice. 

Sorghum

Sorghum is a more sustainable, drought-resistant, and naturally, wheat-free grain. These cereal grains are often used to make GF pasta (15). This starch is low in sodium and high in potassium and fiber. You can also boil it and bake it to sprinkle it over many dishes.

Some people enjoy popping the sorghum seeds and eating them just like popped corn. Sorghum crops require less water to grow than corn so it may just the sustainable popcorn choice of the future. 

Final Word

Even if you must follow a gluten-free diet for health reasons you can still eat quinoa and many other cereal grains. As always, it is important that you continue to follow up with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and your Doctor if you notice any issues tolerating foods. Keep in mind that every individual is different. Some celiac patients are much more sensitive to any ppm of gluten, gliadin and gluten, and certain grain products. 

Pay attention to your servings sizes and product labeling. If you consume double or triple the serving size of any GF product this can potentially trigger symptoms. If you find that you experience any pain or discomfort after consuming any of the GF grains mentioned in this article keep them away from your plate. After all, you are the CEO of your body!

  1. Dakhili, Samira, et al. “Quinoa Protein: Composition, Structure and Functional Properties.” Food Chemistry, vol. 299, Nov. 2019, p. 125161. PubMed, doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2019.125161.
  2. Filho, Antonio Manoel Maradini, et al. “Quinoa: Nutritional, Functional, and Antinutritional Aspects.” Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, vol. 57, no. 8, May 2017, pp. 1618–30. PubMed, doi:10.1080/10408398.2014.1001811.
  3. “Assessment of Genetic Diversity Patterns in Chilean Quinoa ( Chenopodium Quinoa Willd.) Germplasm Using Multiplex Fluorescent Microsatellite Markers.” ResearchGate, doi:10.1007/s10592-008-9604-3. Accessed 21 Sept. 2020.
  4. PubChem. Lysine. https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/5962. Accessed 21 Sept. 2020.
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  8. Liu, Wei, et al. “Quinoa Whole Grain Diet Compromises the Changes of Gut Microbiota and Colonic Colitis Induced by Dextran Sulfate Sodium in C57BL/6 Mice.” Scientific Reports, vol. 8, Oct. 2018. PubMed Central, doi:10.1038/s41598-018-33092-9. 
  9. El Hazzam, Khadija, et al. “An Insight into Saponins from Quinoa (Chenopodium Quinoa Willd): A Review.” Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), vol. 25, no. 5, Feb. 2020. PubMed, doi:10.3390/molecules25051059.
  10. https://www.coopmarket.com/bob-s-red-mill-organic-raw-buckwheat-groats-16-oz-bag/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI4pf9mOX76wIV4D6tBh2lfQVbEAQYAiABEgJ_yvD_BwE
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  14. Zhang, Zhiyong, et al. “Towards Coeliac-Safe Bread.” Plant Biotechnology Journal, vol. 18, no. 4, 2020, pp. 1056–65. PubMed, doi:10.1111/pbi.13273.
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