quinoa plants
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 pseudo-cereal 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 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 or in patients with other forms of gluten sensitivity?

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. First, they tested the quinoa samples using an ELISA to test for "gluten" content. Protein samples from all 15 varieties gave gluten readings below the typical cutoff of 20 ppm (four samples gave a very low, but detectable signal).

The proteins were also 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 play important roles for the human immune response to gluten. 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 wheat, barley, and rye are the only grains to be problematic.

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 weather 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

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