July 16, 2012

Is Quinoa a Safe Gluten Free Food Alternative?


A commonly asked question for those embarking on a gluten free diet – “Is quinoa a safe alternative to eat?”

What is Quinoa?

Quinoa is actually not a grain.  It is a pseudocereal seed used by many as a gluten free substitute.

It is a commonly used staple crop in South America, specifically grown in the Andes.  Quinoa has a favorable protein content and contains a number of minerals and B-vitamins.  With the popularity of the gluten free diet on the rise, interest in quinoa has skyrocketed, and it is being touted as a safe and healthy alternative to wheat, barley, rye and other gluten containing grains.   Ergo the question – Is quinoa a safe gluten free food?

The Problem With Quinoa…

Technically, quinoa is gluten free.  However; the processing of the pseudo grain is often performed in facilities that also process other grain based foods.  This is where cross contamination becomes a major issue.  A recent study found that 41% of processed products randomly pulled from grocery shelves contain enough gluten to cause damage to those with gluten sensitivity.  As stated above, quinoa is a seed.  One of the problems with seeds in general, is that they are particular hard to digest.  Many seeds contain gluten like proteins and chemical compounds called lectins.  Many of the lectins and gluten based components have been shown to created digestive suppression and inflammatory problems in humans, and they are known contributors of autoimmune disease.

Is Quinoa Gluten Free?

Technically speaking quinoa is gluten free based on the definition of gluten created for those with celiac disease.  However; quinoa does have “gluten like” storage proteins that can mimic prtoeins found in wheat, barley, and rye.  The obvious question is: are these storage proteins sufficiently similar to traditional glutens that they could cause an immune reaction in celiac patients or in patients with other forms of gluten sensitivity?  According to new research, the answer is yes…

New Study Identifies Quinoa as a Potential Danger

A recent research paper published by V.F. Zevallos and co-workers examined 15 different varieties of quinoa, to examine their safety for people with celiac disease.

The quinoa proteins were tested to determine if they led to an increased production of IFN (interferon)-gamma and IL( interleukin) 15.  These inflammatory chemicals (also called cytokines) play important roles for the human immune response to gluten.  What did the researchers find?

  Two 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 quinoa is not necessarily safe for ingestion in those with gluten sensitivity.  Additionally, the results shed more light on the traditional flawed thought that proteins in wheat, barley, and rye are the only food proteins to be problematic in patients with gluten sensitivity.

Resource: Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Jul 3. [Epub ahead of print]

Gluten Definition Overhaul is Needed

Current testing for gluten relies on a methodology called ELISA.  The testing measures the quantity of traditional glutens present in food.  Unfortunately, it does not measure whether other glutens and gluten like proteins cause inflammatory problems in patients.  This problem has been pointed out multiple times in research.  Case in point – rice, corn, soy, and dairy have all been shown to cause inflammatory reactions and or villous atrophy identical to celiac disease in human studies.  Yet the generic recommendation by most doctors and nutritionists is to eat this foods without concern.  When you also take into consideration that up to 92% of people following a traditional gluten free diet don’t heal, and continue to be stricken with multiple forms of autoimmune disease, it becomes clear that more precise definitions are needed.

Looking out for your health,

Dr. Osborne


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24 Responses to “Is Quinoa a Safe Gluten Free Food Alternative?”

  • Oli Cosgrove says:

    Allergy magazine recently ran an article in which corn was described as safe for
    celiacs. I sent the magazine Dr. Osborne’s list of the gluten content of grains and pointed out that corn is not safe. It replied that the gluten in corn isn’t harmful
    to celiacs. I asked Dr. Osborne for his comments so I could reply to the magazine
    but have had no response.

  • Rosemarie Farrugia Doublet says:


  • Carol says:

    My doctor gave me a blood test that tested for 28 other foods that can mimic a gluten reaction. Quinoa was one of those tested. I did test negative for it, as well as other foods. So glad I was tested!

  • John Berg says:

    You have probably already discussed this, but how about seeds such as sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, etc. that are supposed to be so good for you? Should gluten senditive people (and that is prabably almost all of us) be concerned about eating these seeds?

  • Memmi Stubbs says:

    If you soak the quinoa, would that make it suitable for people with gluten sensitivity and autoimmune diseases? That helps remove the lectins in other seeds (and beans), I believe. It would be so nice to keep that grain on the ok list!

  • Memmi,
    Not according to this recent study. My advice is to discontinue it if you are on a gluten free diet and still having health issues.
    All the best,
    Dr. O

  • John,
    I don’t necessarily think that all seeds are a problem for everyone. I do however strongly encourage people to avoid using seeds as a staple food in the diet.

  • Carol,
    The test your doctor used was most likely a cyrex lab panel. The problem is that this test does not measure all of the known ways in which the immune system can have a reaction. I would advise caution.

  • Sally Tanner says:

    To your knowledge, have there been any studies done linking gluten intolerance with speech disorders such as apraxia? or any other developmental disorders affecting vision and speech, and muscle tone?

  • S. Ehrlich says:

    Muscle tone might have to do with autoimmune diseases, such as Dermatomyositis. There is a known connection between Dermatomyositis & Celiac disease. Look up an article published in:
    Can J Gastroenterol. 2006 June; 20(6): 433–435. PMCID: PMC2659927

    Copyright © 2006, Pulsus Group Inc. All rights reserved
    Dermatomyositis associated with celiac disease: Response to a gluten-free diet.

  • Kayla says:

    Has anyone quit eating Quinoa and noticed they got better? Just fixed a big pot of it. Do you say the same thing with Beans also?
    Also someone asked if you have multiple food allergies, as she mentioned ( I also have, like many of us) Potato, rice, corn, tomatoes allergies. What does that leave us to have other than Vegetables and meat, and some fruit, any suggestions on this?

  • Kayla says:

    Has anyone gotten Better while having multiple food allergies, and eating Quinoa?

    I also wondering if being careful of the source you get it from. I know Eden foods, their’s is made in a factory with wheat I was told, BUT that they use extreme measures to clean equipment.

    IF this can make a difference in Lowering the bodies response to it, looking it as a gluten more so, because other sources, brands may not use the measures ones like Eden does in the factory.

  • Christina says:


    Speaking as a “unofficially diagnosed celiac” with multiple allergies, I have problems with quinoa, reacting just like when I eat gluten and have problems with balance and nerve issues after eating it. According to an article I read (livestrong?), quinoa has an acid (elgic?) that can cause nerve problems in people that are sensitive. My sources of quinoa were gluten free processed in a dedicated gluten free facility . . .. Stopped eating quinoa and my problems with balance and nerve issues stopped. Thanks to Dr. O’s advice the brain fog is gone and my energy is increasing may his tribe increase . . . .

  • Susie says:

    First time I used quinoa, no problem, made a salad and it was delicious. Second time, different brand, I was a sick puppy just as if I’d eaten a plate full of gluten! The same thing happens to me with millet and all the products that go through the distillation process. I stay away from them all! AS for rice, I’ve only had a problem with a store brand white rice, I stick to a kosher white rice with no problems. Wild, brown and black rice don’t give me the same gluten reaction, however, I have a very hard time digesting them. At the same time, brown rice flour is one of my main flour substitutes. I can’t digest added glucose, sucrose, artificial sweeteners, etc. and I have found that the newly added stevia in my rice drink powder makes me crave sweets all day long. I wish they would remove it! The short of it all is that the ones making the decisions on what is safe and what is not are NOT people who suffer from this disease/condition. NO parts per million is gluten free. Read Dr. Rodney Ford’s book “Gluten: Zero Global

  • [...] I’ve read science behind this kind of reaction before on Paleo blogs and it turns out quinoa is potentially dangerous for those with celiac disease because it mimics qualities of gluten. Here’s one article: http://www.glutenfreesociety.org/gluten-free-society-blog/is-quinoa-a-safe-gluten-free-food-altern… [...]

  • Marie-Eve Morin says:

    Hi, I am so disapointed to read this research!! It was the only grain left for me! Is there a way that we could make those ”gluten like” protein break down before we eat it so it could be easier, like making them sprout and then cook them?

  • Blaine Pullin says:

    My wife is allergic to wheat, corn, rye, barley and other items. It drives me nuts to find items to be wheat free, but then be loaded with corn. She had an allergist tell her that most people who are allergic to wheat are also allergic to corn.

    I read the Wall St. Journal article about superfoods today, and they touted quinoa. Now, reading this, I guess more research needs to be done on my part.

    Does quinoa cause problems for people with wheat / corn allergies? Or is it only a problem with gluten sensitiviy?

    Just to be clear, allergy to wheat is not the same as gluten sensitivity.

  • According to research so far, quinoa is a problem for those with gluten sensitivity.
    Allergy can be an ambiguous term. There are different types of allergies. Acute, delayed, innate vs. adaptive etc. If your wife’s problem is with an IgE allergic response to wheat/corn, you can consider this to be very different than a sensitivity.

  • [...] Is Quinoa a Safe Gluten Free Food Alternative? – Technically, quinoa is gluten free. However; the processing of the pseudo grain is often performed in facilities that also process other grain based foods. This is …… [...]

  • [...] Please note: While quinoa has been recommended by some doctors as a gluten-free alternative, there have been studies that have shown quinoa to cause issues for those with Celiac and gluten sensitivities, due to one of two things: 1) Processing. Often times quinoa is processed in facilities with other grains that contain gluten, and thereby it is cross contaminated, negatively affecting those with gluten sensitivity, as the tiniest bit of gluten can cause intestinal damage and discomfort. 2) Quinoa is a seed, making it hard to digest, in general, and many seeds have gluten-like proteins that have been shown to cause digestive inflammatory issues.  More information on quinoa can be found here.  [...]

  • LuSinda says:

    This gluten-free business is turning into a nightmare.
    I am in the process of writing a recipe/fact book for people with various sensitivities and have made myself really sick – extremely high blood pressure, stomach, esophagus, bowel pain, high inflammation level,dizziness etc.

    I perused over 50 books for gluten-free and have been trying many recipes which have made me REALLY SICK all this fall. Lately I have been working with Quinoa and either have a severe case of the flu or the Quinoa is the problem.

    This is turning into a nightmare!
    I can use almond flour and other nuts and have a delicious waffle recipe, which is great for me but not for those sensitive to eggs.

    Also what about amaranth? I really love this! TY you for this site. I am more determined to find the right answers as almost all the recipe books parrot others without doing any research.

  • LuSinda,
    Cut out all grains and pseudo grains. The following list should help you avoid the right foods.

    All the best,
    Dr. O

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