Is Quinoa Gluten-Free? (Learn When to Avoid Quinoa)

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 if you're gluten-free, you may wonder if quinoa is one option you can reach for. Quinoa sometimes is touted as a super-healthy substitute for gluten-containing grains, and 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 generally 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, so you do 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. I've used it as whole-"grain" hot cereal (cook it as you would oatmeal), and ground into flour for flatbread.

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

A study published in 2014 confirms that quinoa is safe for people who have been diagnosed with celiac disease.

The study, published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 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, or damage to their intestines.

The study actually found slight improvements in villous atrophy in the 10 people who underwent those 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, although it added that longer-term studies will determine the ultimate safety of this grain substitute for those with celiac disease.

Quinoa also makes decent pasta and a good base for cold cereal. I've seen it used in cold summer "grain"-based salads instead of bulgur wheat, and even in gluten-free flour blends for cakes and pastries.

Is Everything with Quinoa Gluten-Free?

Nope, you 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 (although people with celiac disease who can't tolerate oats 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 ... and that mix is not gluten-free.

The bottom line is, you can't assume that products containing quinoa as their main ingredient are gluten-free, just as 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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