Quinoa is a delicious and popular South American seed. It’s also known as a pseudocereal, with similar taste and properties to common grains. Many people consider quinoa a must-eat superfood because it contains fiber, protein, water, and carbohydrates. Quinoa is also low in sodium and high in calcium, potassium, and iron, making it a healthy and nutritious part of any diet.
But for some people, eating quinoa may cause stomachaches, itchy skin, hives, and other common symptoms of food allergies. The seed and its coating contain the compound saponin, which could cause these symptoms.
If you're allergic to quinoa or have sensitivity to saponin, it doesn't mean you have to miss out on tasty recipes. You can wash quinoa to get rid of the coating, or substitute it for other healthy grains.
Symptoms of a quinoa allergy
If you have an allergy or intolerance to quinoa, you may experience:
- inflammation in the skin, lungs, and digestive tract
- asthma-like symptoms like wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing, or tightness of chest
- stomach pain
As with any allergy, some people may experience a severe allergic reaction to eating quinoa. Those symptoms can include:
- elevated heart rate
- pale skin
- low blood pressure
- facial swelling
- inability to breathe
Some people have reported developing an intolerance or allergy to quinoa after eating quinoa for a while. This is often because of saponin, a chemical found in quinoa's coating. Research has found it can help reduce cancer risks. Allergy or intolerance symptoms may also develop in response to the protein or oxalates found in the quinoa seed.
Saponin is a bitter, soapy substance that protects the quinoa plant from fungal and insect attacks. It also contains toxins that can cause irritation and other issues in some people. While the level of toxicity is low, some people may be sensitive to this compound.
If you’re allergic to saponin, you can still include quinoa in your diet as long as you wash the seeds well. Soak quinoa for at least 30 minutes and rinse it several times before cooking. This will help remove the natural coating, which contains the saponin.
Foods to avoid and quinoa substitutes
If you have a quinoa allergy, you’ll want to watch out for dishes that include quinoa and any cross-reactive foods in order to avoid symptoms. But you can replace quinoa with lots of other healthy grains.
Quinoa belongs to the same family as spinach, beets, and Swiss chard. This means that since they are related, you may experience similar allergic reactions to quinoa as you would with a chard allergy.
Allergies to tumbleweed pollen, grass, and grass pollen can accompany a quinoa allergy, as they all belong to the same family.
Foods to avoid
You should avoid eating quinoa and foods made of quinoa if you're allergic to the seed. These foods include certain flours, soups, breakfast cereals, or combination dishes like pilaf.
If saponin is the culprit, the list of foods to avoid grows. Saponin is found in other foods that include:
- amaranth seeds
- legumes including peanuts, kidney beans, and navy beans
It may be hard to eliminate these foods from your diet. Try to gauge your reactions when you eat certain beans or seeds to decide if they’re something you want avoid completely, or try to manage.
If you can't have quinoa there are plenty of alternatives to the seed that will give you the nutrition you need and flavor you want. You can go with a classic like couscous or try some other grains that pack a healthy punch.
Buckwheat is versatile and delicious, but the name may fool you. Buckwheat's not in the wheat family. This earthy grain is nutritious and energizing, and has a higher concentration of fiber and protein than quinoa. You can use buckwheat to make chocolate chip cookies, lemon waffles, overnight parfait, savory crepes, and even creamy risotto.
Millet is a group of gluten-free grains known for its healthy properties. The four different types of millet commonly cultivated around the world include:
- pearl millet
- foxtail millet
- proso millet
- finger millet
Pearl millet is the most widely produced. Pearl millet is rich in carbohydrates and antioxidants, but has half the fiber content of quinoa. You can use millet for creamy cauliflower mashed potatoes, apple raisin cake, or as a twist on sticky rice.
The American Diabetes Association considers pearled barley a diabetes superfood because the whole grain is full of fiber and potassium. Barley also has less fat than quinoa.
Its nutty flavor makes barley perfect for any dish. There's the classic beef and barley soup, of course, but you can also get adventurous with the grain. Like buckwheat, barley is great for risotto. You can also make a golden beet and barley salad with rainbow chard for a delicious seasonal meal.
Wheat berry is the entire wheat kernel. It has the same amount of protein as quinoa, but less than half the fat. Wheat berry is also packed with fiber. It has a nutty and robust flavor that’s delicious in salads. Toss it with cherries, chicken, and pecans for a hearty salad. Or mix it with tuna and olives for a summer stir-fry.
Foodies consider freekeh the next hot super grain. A traditional Middle Eastern grain, freekeh is young, green wheat that's roasted over an open fire. It's also an excellent source of fiber and protein. You can use the earthy grain in a chickpea and herb salad, or in a curry soup with sweet potatoes and kale.
As with any other food allergy, you can experience a minor to severe reaction after eating quinoa. If you have a severe allergy, you may be at risk for going into anaphylactic shock.
See your doctor right away if you have an allergic reaction to quinoa. If it’s a minor reaction, your doctor will most likely prescribe an oral antihistamine. If you have a severe reaction, head straight to the emergency room. A severe allergic reaction will require an epinephrine — or EpiPen — injection.
If you have a quinoa allergy, it's best to eliminate it from your diet to prevent future allergic responses. While minor allergic reactions are easier to manage, severe reactions can be life-threatening.
If you have an intolerance only to saponin, then you can keep quinoa as part of your diet as long as you wash the grains well.