Celiac Alert: Quinoa Causes Problems in some Celiacs
Quinoa is a gluten-free grain. No one is arguing that point. In fact a study in 2011 tested quinoa, along with teff, millet and amaranth and found all to be safe for the diet of a celiac patient. (Reference: Bergamo, P, et al. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research (2011) 8:1266-1270. “Immunological evaluation of the alcohol-soluble protein fraction from gluten-free grains in relation to celiac disease”)
We have discussed in earlier posts the concept of gluten cross-reactivity wherein a gluten-free food such as dairy products, grains and coffee, to name a few, actually have a protein structure similar to gluten and create ‘gluten reactions’ in sensitive individuals despite no actual gluten being ingested. That may sound confusing but it is simply due to an overtaxed immune system (from years of gluten exposure) making an error between the actual protein gluten and a protein that resembles gluten.
What I want to discuss today is a study that reveals some potential problems with quinoa in those with celiac disease and perhaps gluten sensitivity. I know, I can hear you groaning from here – Don’t take away my quinoa! I do understand and for most people, cross reactivity aside (which by the way is typically quite temporary), quinoa is likely fine. But this blog is designed to increase awareness and improve health. And it seems that there is a potential for quinoa to be quite damaging, so to ignore this research would go against my stated purpose of improving health.
Let’s look at the research and then I’ll give you my opinion on how best to proceed. The research published just a few days ago by Zevallos and co-workers, involved the investigation of 15 different cultivars of quinoa. A cultivar is a plant that has been cultivated to have at least one distinct difference from the original species, such as flower color, level of disease resistance, or fruit shape. So while all 15 studied can be called ‘quinoa’ there are subtle differences amongst them. Actually, perhaps the differences are not so subtle when we reveal the results of the study.
Researchers began by taking all 15 varieties and doing an ELISA test on them. ELISA testing is evaluating for the presence of the gluten protein and it is through ELISA testing that food is given the thumbs up – meaning it has less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten – or the thumbs down if it exceeds that level. Currently in the US it is the threshold of 20 ppm that we ask foods to fall under if they are to be labeled gluten-free. All of the quinoa samples passed this test with flying colors. Quinoa typically gives a low reading in the ELISA test and these varieties were no different.
However, the researchers went on to look at the quinoa from the perspective of its ‘biological activity’ meaning did it cause tissues or immune cells taken from celiac patients to have an immune reaction. Of the 15 cultivars, two (“Ayacuchana” and “Pansakalla”) caused the production of two immune-stimulating substances to be produced. What is critical about these substances, called cytokines, is that they are integral to the immune response for gluten and the development of celiac disease. And the response they created was “as potent as that observed for wheat gluten”.
So, while the quinoa had no actual gluten it did create an immune reaction indistinguishable from that of gluten. When it comes right down to it, we are more interested if the immune system is going to ‘react’ as if gluten is present than if actual gluten is present. Why? Because it is that immune reaction that creates the ill health and damage that is celiac disease.
Was this just a case of cross-contamination? No. Remember the ELISA tests were all negative.
How many ‘garden variety’ quinoa species that we find in our local grocery store are of the offending two cultivars? We don’t know for sure.
My take-away of this study as it relates to how I treat my patients is to be aware of a potential reaction to quinoa and ensure that it is not happening and therefore jeopardizing the hard work that I and my patients are doing to restore their optimal health.
Despite this research being done on patients with celiac disease, I wouldn’t rule out those with gluten sensitivity as potential ‘victims’ of this problem as I have seen those with gluten sensitivity have cross-reactive reactions the same as those with celiac disease.
If you think you are reacting to quinoa, check the cultivars that the company is using, if possible. If it’s not one of the offending ones, you could be having a cross-reactive reaction as discussed above. But even if the cultivars cannot be confirmed or it’s not one of the two mentioned, listen to your body. If you seem to be reacting, don’t continue to eat it.
If you are feeling great and quinoa is a part of your diet, you are likely fine to continue enjoying it. But if you wish to know for sure, you can always contact a clinician and have a cross-reactive panel run.
I hope this was helpful. I am here to help so please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have. Our destination clinic treats patients from across the country and internationally. If you would like a free health analysis, please call us at 408-733-0400.
To your good health,
Dr Vikki Petersen, DC, CCN
Founder of HealthNOW Medical Center
Co-author of “The Gluten Effect”
Author of the e-Book: “Gluten Intolerance – What you don’t know may be killing you!”
Reference: Zevallos, VF, et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (April 2012) 10.3945/ajcn.111.030684 “Variable activation of immune response by quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) prolamins in celiac disease”