A day doesn’t pass that I don’t see some new “healthy” recipe for quinoa, or a dietitian or nutritionist gushing about the health benefits of this seed.
Many make the claim that quinoa is high in protein and is gluten-free. Clearly, the gluten-free movement is fueling some of this excitement over this seed. But how much truth are there in these claims? And just how healthy is quinoa as a replacement for grains?
Let’s tackle these claims one by one:
Quinoa is not a grain and is gluten-free
This is absolutely true. While all grains, or seeds of grasses, are members of the family Poaceae, quinoa is not; it is a member of the family Amaranthaceae that includes spinach, beets, and some ornamental shrubs. It therefore does not have the gluten proteins of wheat, rye, or barley, nor anything resembling the zein protein of corn nor the avenin of oats. From this perspective, quinoa is therefore safe for people, for instance, with celiac disease.
Quinoa is high in protein
I have always been puzzled by this popular claim. The claim of “high” is relative, of course. Quinoa contains 14 grams protein per 100 grams total weight. Wheat contains 14-18 grams, oats 16.9 grams, though barley contains 9.9 grams and millet 11 grams. So quinoa is middling if grains are the comparator.
Quinoa is healthy
No question: quinoa lacks the worst aspects of wheat and its brethren grains, such as the gliadin protein that initiates autoimmune diseases and, upon partial digestion, yields opiates that have mind and inflammatory effects; the lectin, wheat germ agglutinin, that disrupts digestion and gastrointestinal health; phytates that reduce iron, magnesium, calcium, and zinc absorption by as much as 90%, resulting in common and widespread deficiencies; and multiple allergens such as alpha amylase and trypsin inhibitors.
But quinoa has a real problem: carbohydrate content. A 100-gram serving of uncooked quinoa yields 64 grams total carbs, 7 grams fiber:
Net carbs = total carbs – fiber, therefore:
64 – 7 = 57 grams digestible carbohydrates in 100 grams uncooked. This means that, similar to grains, quinoa is a carbohydrate-rich food. Consuming one cup of cooked quinoa yields 39.4 grams net carbs, more than enough to set a carbohydrate-driven metabolic mess in motion.
Recall that for most of us, it requires 15 grams net carbohydrates per meal to begin to generate rises in blood sugars, followed by all the phenomena that follow such blood sugar rises such as insulin resistance, weight gain, and all the consequence of glycation (long-term risk for cataracts, hypertension, skin aging, cancer, heart disease, dementia).
So, yes, quinoas is not a grain, does not have gluten nor phytates or wheat germ agglutinin, but poses a real carbohydrate challenge, just as jelly beans do. Should you choose to include quinoa in your dietary regimen, go very lightly and beware of the potential to become tangled in the glucose-insulin-glycation collection of health issues.