Is Food With Quinoa Gluten-Free?

Pure quinoa is fine, but not everything with quinoa in it is safe

Is quinoa safe on a gluten-free diet?. Christopher Hope-Fitch/Moment/Getty Images

Since many grains are off the list of things you can eat on a gluten-free diet, you may wonder whether quinoa is one option you can reach for. Quinoa is often touted as a super-healthy substitute for gluten-containing grains. It increasingly appears on restaurant menus and in processed food mixes you find in the health food section of your favorite grocery store.

There's good news: Yes, pure quinoa is gluten-free, making it safe for people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. However, that doesn't mean that all products containing quinoa are gluten-free. In fact, some most definitely are not. You need to be careful and read product labels.

Is Quinoa Truly Gluten-Free?

Quinoa isn't really a grain. It's the seed of a plant that's related to spinach, not to wheat. Therefore, if you can find plain quinoa—whole or flour—that's labeled gluten-free or certified gluten-free, it makes a perfect substitute for grain-based menu items.

Whole quinoa can be used as whole-"grain" hot cereal—cook it as you would oatmeal—or as a base for cold cereal. It can also be ground into flour for flatbread or found in gluten-free flour blends for cakes and pastries. Quinoa also makes decent pasta. Some people like to use it in cold summer "grain"-based salads instead of bulgur wheat as well.

Several brands of plain whole-grain quinoa are labeled "gluten-free," including Ancient Harvest, Trader Joe's, and Bob's Red Mill.

Research to Backup the Quinoa Claim

A 2014 study published 401 The American Journal of Gastroenterology confirms that quinoa is safe for people who have been diagnosed with celiac disease. Researchers sought to prove or refute evidence from prior research indicating that quinoa might aggravate the immune system in people with celiac.

To test this, 19 diagnosed celiacs who were following the gluten-free diet ate 50 grams of quinoa (a little less than a quarter of a cup) every day for six weeks. The researchers evaluated their diets, tracked their symptoms, and monitored their immune system reaction with celiac blood tests.

They also looked directly at the small intestines of 10 people both before and after adding quinoa to their diets to see if they were experiencing villous atrophy (damage to their intestines). They actually found slight improvements in villous atrophy those who underwent the tests. The researchers also noted slight improvements in cholesterol measures.

"Addition of quinoa to the gluten-free diet of celiac patients was well tolerated and did not exacerbate the condition," the study concluded. However, it added that longer-term studies will determine the ultimate safety of this grain substitute for those with celiac disease.

Is Everything With Quinoa Gluten-Free?

The answer is a clear no and you do still have to read labels. Many—but not all—of the quinoa-based products on the market are considered gluten-free.

For example, Ancient Harvest makes a variety of safe quinoa products, including pasta that's based on quinoa and corn flours and made in a gluten-free facility. Orgran, another manufacturer of gluten-free products, makes gluten-free cereal, flatbread, and multigrain crumbs with quinoa.

Bob's Red Mill makes quinoa flour in a gluten-free facility. If you have celiac disease and cannot tolerate oats, you should know that Bob's also processes its gluten-free oats in that facility. However, Bob's Red Mill also makes an Organic 7-Grain Pancake Mix with quinoa which is not gluten-free.

The bottom line is, you can't assume that products containing quinoa as their main ingredient are gluten-free. It's just like you can't assume products that contain rice or corn as their main ingredient are gluten-free. You always have to check the ingredient label for terms that mean gluten before buying anything.

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Article Sources
  • Zavallos VF, et al. Gastrointestinal Effects of Eating Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) in Celiac Patients. The American Journal of Gastroenterology. 2014;109:270-278.