Quinoa is a nutritive plant found in the various regions of the Andes and is commonly recommended as a gluten-free alternative for those with celiac disease, and most recently non-celiac gluten sensitivity as well. Known to have low amounts of prolamins, the major seed protein in cereal that in the grains wheat (gliadin), barley (hordein) and rye (secalin) are toxic to persons with celiac disease, quinoa is referred to as naturally gluten-free. While quinoa is commonly recommended as an essential component to the gluten-free diet, there has been little research done to support whether or not quinoa will trigger an immune reaction in those with celiac disease. As a result, researchers in Madrid and London set about to determine if quinoa can truly be considered a gluten-free alternative.
To accomplish their goal, the researchers studied 15 different varieties of quinoa. Of the 15 plants studied, four contained quantifiable amounts of gluten, but the amounts were below the 20 ppm mark. (20ppm of gluten is the threshold considered to be safe for persons with celiac disease). Two varieties of quinoa contained enough gluten to initiate an adaptive and immune response in some study participants. Researchers concluded, however, that most strains of quinoa will not elicit an immune system response in people with celiac disease. They also emphasized that the findings of this study are preliminary and more studies are needed to reach a definitive conclusion as to whether quinoa has the potential to cause reactions.
According to one of the researchers, Victor F. Zevallos from the Division of Diabetes and Nutritional Sciences, Department of Gastroenterology, King’s College London, United Kingdom, “We observed large variability in the immune responses to quinoa prolamins depending on the cultivar tested. This is in agreement with similar studies evaluating the safety of other plants such as oats. We anticipate that quinoa is a safe alternative for celiac patients. However, without in vivo data (i.e. animal testing and clinical trials), it is difficult to accurately estimate the effects of quinoa consumption in celiac patients, particularly in those patients that are sensitive to small quantities of gliadin-like toxic peptides. Therefore, further clinical studies are necessary to confirm the suitability of quinoa for celiac patients and to facilitate its full incorporation in the gluten-free market."
While the study is a first step in learning more about quinoa, it also serves as a reminder of the importance of reading food labels. Gluten can often be overlooked in prepared, packaged and canned foods. Further, a 2010 study shed light on the growing and manufacturing processes of inherently gluten-free alternatives and proved that cross- contamination concerns exist even among naturally gluten-free grains and flours. To avoid the risk of inadvertently ingesting gluten, it is always a “best practice” to purchase naturally gluten-free grains and flours, such as quinoa, that are labeled gluten-free.
Visit The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition to learn more about the study on quinoa.
Proposed FDA Ruling: Celiac Disease: What Gluten-Free Means Today
To learn more about cross-contamination and oats, visit the Answers from a Dietitian blog.