Touted in the health and fitness world as one of today’s superfoods, quinoa is appearing in all sorts of foods from salads to breakfast cereals. But what is quinoa and can you eat it as part of a paleo or grain-free diet?
Yes! Quinoa is NOT a grain—it is in fact a seed. Quinoa is from the same family as beetroots and spinach and the part of the quinoa plant we eat is the seed. It’s naturally gluten-free and packed full of protein, making it a fantastic source of energy for everyone—especially those on a gluten-free, grain-free or paleo diet.
I first discovered the amazing health benefits of quinoa in the early 2000s when I began researching alternative grain substitutes to create commercial bakery products. As Australia’s only immunobiologist working in private practice, I kept seeing time and time again a link between cereal grains and the efficiency of a person’s immune system. I set about examining how the dozens of defence chemicals found in cereal grains, such as wheat and rice, affect the human immune system. I believe I was the first person in the world to do so. I published my findings in my book No More Chronic Fatigue in the late 1990s after conducting 4,000 case studies. Part of my research included investigating alternative plant seeds and roots that could be made into commercial bakery products as a substitute for cereal grains like wheat, rice and corn.
Quinoa was one of the grain substitutes that I tested on hundreds of people with compromised immune systems. I found it to be an amazing alternative and it went on to become the basis of the world’s first grain-free bakery Deeks Health Foods right here in Canberra, Australia.
Being from the same family as spinach, quinoa is genetically a long way removed from grasses. In botany, grains and cereals are only seeds from grass families. But the paleo movement uses agronomy rather than botany to define what constitutes a grain. Agronomists define grains as small hard, dry seeds with or without hulls or fruit layers, or any seeds or fruits that resemble grass seeds in appearance, and that are harvested for human and animal consumption. Thus quinoa is included in the paleo definition as a grain because it resembles grass seeds in both size and appearance. But in actual fact, quinoa is as far from being a grain as the green leafy vegetable spinach is. Quinoa is also sometimes referred to in health and food articles as a pseudo cereal (or even a super-grain) because the Incas harvested it to make flat breads for more than 1,000 years, (much like Australian Aborigines harvested spinifex, woolybuck, nardoo and legume seeds to make flat breads in the central Australian deserts). The great thing about quinoa is that you can easily remove the poisonous seed husk by rubbing the seeds in water. The seed husk has saponin chemicals that protect the seeds from birds and some insects, and the Incas obviously found that rubbing the seeds in their hands in water easily removed the poisonous coating. The seed husks with the saponins can be used as a detergent for cleaning, and this may also be a reason why Incas used this seed—to clean clothes in streams. Nobody should eat quinoa with the husk still on—it produces a very bitter taste and is poisonous.
The quinoa seed pulp does contain some defence storage chemicals, however these do not cause a problem for most people, and highland quinoa does not create problems for those with compromised immune systems. Lowland quinoa however gives more immune responses than highland quinoa above 3,000 metres, according to my research. So where quinoa comes from can make a big difference to your quinoa-eating experience. You can buy quinoa seeds with the husk still on from farms in Australia. But you need to thoroughly wash the husk off the seeds before you prepare them for cooking. Cheap quinoa found in some supermarkets also often still has remnants of the husks attached because they have been poorly washed to save on costs. Poorly washed quinoa makes people sick. So if you’re planning to eat quinoa for the first time, you are best to try and source some highland quinoa or at least some that is well prepared.
The great news is, all of the quinoa used in Deeks bakery products is premium quality, highland quinoa from Bolivia. So if you’re on a grain-free, gluten-free or paleo diet and you’re keen to give quinoa a go, check out Deeks. They bake substantial alternatives to the wheat or rice-based breads you may have grown up eating and now miss.
So not only is quinoa grain-free and good for your health, it also tastes delicious!