Celiac Alert: Quinoa Causes Gluten Cross-Reactivity in some Celiacs

Image: Dr. Vikki Petersen Celiac Alert: Quinoa Causes Problems in some Celiacs

By Dr. Vikki Petersen

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”

10 Replies to “Celiac Alert: Quinoa Causes Gluten Cross-Reactivity in some Celiacs”

  1. a few years back i could no longer avoid i was having issues. multiple doctors- colonoscopy etc.. tested for celiac came up negative.. but through my own diet eliminiation i diagnosed myself as gluten intolerant. i’d analyzed everything in my diet was nothing out of the ordinary. except one thing which was not a new item in my diet though just not frequent. home made egg noodles. i’d avoided pasta for many years due to the fact it made me nauseous- Kraft brand in particular was the worst. took me six months to finally figure out specifically the culprit. all those years I’d thought i was lactose intolerant – i’m going to think was more than likely gluten problem. for sometime after that i was able to continue eating oatmeal, consume coffee, eat peanuts. No longer. when coffee affects me I must resort to instant or nothing.. *gasp* lol. for now i’m eating a gluten free oatmeal its labled- we’ll see how much longer I can go with this. but i noticed a couple months ago I’d tried consuming some peanut M&M’s and suffered unduley for days. Never again. I was never a fan of quinoa due to the taste but had hoped it as well as rice would be my replacement for a filler since many of the rest was out of the picture. Now i read the article “other foods that react like gluten” which named rice, corn, quinoa- makes me wonder whats left to eat! lol makes a social life very difficult to go out and eat with in Northern Idaho. referencing a gf option from the “foods that act like gluten” article- bobs red mill- i’d made the corn bread mix- tasted like it was stale ten years past. I live an hour from the nearest walmart and few gluten free options locally as well as income wise.
    The search goes on lol.

  2. I have gluten sensitivity but I’m not celiac. It is a few days that I have abdominal pains, not localized in a specific point. I started having some fever from tuesday. During the week end I ate quinoa for the first time, in a salad prepared by a friend (it was a dinner with 8 people, nobody else is sick). From yesterday I saw many doctors, also at the hospital and they cannot find out what I have. I wonder whether this could be an allergic reaction to quinoa… Thank you if you can reply.

    1. Hi Emanuela,

      I have no idea what you ate that made you ill. It could very well be the quinoa. However, if it made you ill, it sounds as if you need to get tested for celiac disease and gluten intolerance. You use the term “gluten sensitivity”. Therefore, I assume you are self-diagnosed. Have you been tested yet?


  3. Hi there,
    I have been living gluten free for a couple of years now. I initially began doing this to see if I felt better and I did. Only now, if I encounter gluten the reacts are quite dramatic. Stomach tied in knots, headache, joint pain etc. I was actually mostly grain free for about a year and recently reintroduced regular grain consumption to my diet. I began eating porridge at night with dinner. I noticed that I immediately felt better, stomach flatter, energy restored etc. I have mostly been eating a rice porridge. I came across some research indicating rice may be toxic if consumed regularly due to arsenic. I have since been trying to incorporate other grains as a result. I tried buckwheat porridge. I love the taste but I get very flushed when I eat it. I know that this is a sign of intolerance so I think Im going to stop consuming it. What do you think I am reacting to? I get that same flush from wheat products….
    I sometimes eat millet cereal I find that it makes me queasy but improves my digestion, It also sometimes causes me to flush.

    Thank you in advance for any advice you can offer.


  4. Hi! I dont think i’m allergic to gluten food, but i sure realize that i’m dealing seriously with an intolerance to quinoa. When i first thought about that, my boyfriend told me it was impossible because it was gluten free…But i stopped eating it anyway, listening to my body (and it was a hard talk: stomach hurt badly, diarrhoea etc.). But then i discover gluten free cookies recently and i eated a lot. That night i had a very bad stomach-ache and diarrhoea. I ate those again without thinking it could countain quinoa, but the same episod happened today…I check the ingredient and realize quinoa was the second on the list…
    Im very thankfull to find a serious article about this because information about intolerance to quinoa is hard to find. Hope it’s gonna help people to understand if they feel the same when eating it!

  5. Quinoa can come in contact with wheat and then contaminate the Quinoa. Only Companies that test for gluten like Bob’s Red Mill can make a claim of being gluten free.

    1. Absolutely, Sherry! And that goes for any gluten-free flour, starch, gum, etc. For those not familiar, oats is the number one concern and if you’re gluten intolerant, it’s a must to use a brand that is labeled gluten-free and tested for cross-contamination. I mostly use Bob’s Red Mill products myself.

      Thanks for commenting!


  6. This is sad news. I have recently heard about the coffee controversy, and it does concern me. It’s probably not the best approach, but I am going to continue eating products like quinoa that are gluten free, even if there is a chance that they may cause reactions in my body. As long as I don’t feel anything, I am going to take that risk in order to preserve my remaining quality of life. I have been gluten free all my life, although my parents were pretty lax about my diet at times, so maybe the over-stressed immune system factor does not apply to me. I have learned from accidents that I need to ingest very large amounts of gluten to have a reaction, and the same could apply to the cross-reacting foods, but I am still hoping that having a “regular” gluten free diet will keep me safe.

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