I am often asked whether certain ingredients are paleo and if not why not. One of the most common questions is in relation to Quinoa. Labelled a superfood, Quinoa was suddenly a popular alternative to rice and legumes, and has been growing in use. Its popularity or re-emergence in the pantry comes from it being recognised as a gluten free ingredient option. I mention a re-emergence, because Quinoa was domesticated some 3000 to 4000 years ago.
Quinoa is the edible seed off a plant that is closely related to spinach, beetroot and tumbleweed. The plant looks a lot like spinach that has been left to go to seed. The seeds are harvested and must then be processed to remove the outer bitter casing. Here is part of the issue. When this seed was first being eaten it was a wild variety. It would have been rare, I believe, to stumble across a plant and then enjoy it as a meal. It would not have been a weekly occurrence. The seed naturally comes with a bitter casing that through agriculture is being genetically modified to try and create a sweeter product. The issue that we may have, as with many grains, is that our bodies haven’t evolved to digest these seeds at the increased quantities they are being consumed at as regularly as they are. With popularity comes increased demand of the farmer. The risks from this increased demand can mean that in the future Quinoa is so far removed from its heritage, its original condition.
If I was basing my answer on what type of plant it is, then I may have said yes, but I’m not.
Quinoa can irritate the gut like most grains. It contains a natural defence against pests and predators in the form of that bitter casing, which contains saponins. Saponins have been used in cleaning (because of its soap like quality) and vaccine research (due to its ability to attack the immune system). Part of the seeds processing is to remove the outer casing and ‘polish’ this grain like substance to minimise the saponin. It is also suggested that the grain like seed is soaked, which again minimises the saponin and make it more palatable. The truth is that the saponin attacks the gut and intestinal lining. This is why it is confused as a grain and not a seed when we consider it in digestion. It acts in our bodies much the same as gluten containing grains do.
So is Quinoa Paleo….in my opinion, no.
I’m don’t want to beat up on Quinoa, well maybe just a bit. If your body can digest it then this would be the ‘not really a grain’ I would be happy to see you eat. However, for you to understand if this seed is truly accepted by your body, you would have to try an elimination diet to be 100% sure. That would mean being completely clean of grains and gluten for 30 days, to truly see its effects.
I never jumped on the band wagon of Quinoa, and don’t have an issue substituting cauliflower or other vegetables for grains instead. I can see why people want to always replace those items they have been used to consuming for most of their lives. I would always suggest these vegetable real food options to you before Quinoa, like I’m sure many of my paleo peers would.