Although quinoa has been around for thousands of years, it has only recently broken into the mainstream food world. Once relegated to obscure health food markets, this sought-after superfood can now be found in just about every grocery store and has even made its way into some chain restaurants. In fact, it’s become so popular that one rarely ever hears it pronounced “kwin-oh-ah” anymore (it’s keen-wah for those rare few left).
Quinoa owes much of its newfound popularity to the growing gluten free community. . Quinoa is considered gluten free because it is not a grain, but rather a pseudo-cereal seed. It it is embraced as a healthy alternative to wheat, barley, rye, and other gluten containing grains. However, there are still a few grey areas to be concerned about when it comes to quinoa. So is it a safe gluten free food? Let’s find out.
What Is Quinoa?
Even though it is often referred to as a grain, quinoa is actually a pseudo-cereal, a term that is used to describe any non-grasses that are ground into flour and act much like a true cereal. From a culinary perspective, we usually cook and consume these seeds like a grain, so it has become common to refer to many pseudo-cereals as grains. From celiac disease to gluten intolerance, quinoa products can serve as a safe plant-based protein for anyone who is looking to avoid gluten in their diet. Much like barley and rice, it cooks quite easily in simmering water or stock, has a rich nutty flavor, and takes less time to cook compared to most whole grains.
Quinoa originated in the areas around Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, and Ecuador around 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, and is still used as a staple crop in many South American countries. This nourishing plant-based protein owes much of its popularity to the fact that it contains a plethora of minerals and B-vitamins and is one of the few plant foods that can be considered a complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids. In fact, the Incas loved the stuff so much that they referred to quinoa as the “mother of all grains.”
Is Quinoa Gluten Free?
The short answer is yes, quinoa is considered to be gluten free. Quinoa is not a grain, rather it's a gluten free pseudo-cereal seed. It's a healthy alternative to gluten-containing grains like barley, wheat, and rye. The problem with quinoa is that it's often processed with other grain-based foods, which causes cross contamination with gluten. Although quinoa is gluten free, you must be careful with the way it is processed.
When to Be Careful with Quinoa
Although quinoa is technically a gluten free food, it is still considered a “high-risk” ingredient due to many cross-contamination factors. Just like many other gluten free grains, quinoa can be processed in facilities that also process gluten-containing foods, making the risk of cross-contamination high. To avoid potentially ingesting gluten, always buy quinoa seeds that are certified as gluten free, and avoid getting it from the bulk bins at the grocery store, as it’s harder to be 100% sure of the source and other shoppers often share scoops between the various bins.
When grocery shopping, unless labeled otherwise, you can’t assume that all quinoa products are gluten free without first reading the label. Another chance for cross-contamination is in restaurants, where pots and pans that have cooked gluten-containing foods are shared with quinoa ingredients. Oftentimes, cooked quinoa is made with chicken stock, which can contain gluten. Always make sure to ask your server how a dish is prepared so you can avoid any mishaps.
So What Other Grains Are Gluten Free?
While quinoa may be the star of the gluten free grain world, it isn’t the only one that deserves our attention. Today, there are so many nutrient-packed, delicious grains and pseudo-cereals on the market that, like quinoa, were once only relegated to the backs of health food stores, but are now available in all their glory. Let’s take a look.
Like quinoa, this tiny, slightly sticky grain was once a staple of the Aztec diet, providing essential amino acids and a high concentration of protein to the local people. It has an aroma similar to that of corn on the cob—intensely grassy and slightly reminiscent of hay; and a distinctive nutty flavor that goes well with minimal dressing (think lemon juice, olive oil, and a touch of salt). Unlike other grains, amaranth contains a significant amount of lysine, an essential amino acid which helps the body absorb calcium, build muscle, and produce energy. Amaranth can be roasted, popped like popcorn, or boiled and added to other dishes, making it a versatile pantry item.
Often labeled as “buckwheat groats,” this whole grain imposter is actually the seed from a plant related to greens like rhubarb and sorrel. Nevertheless, its similarity to grains in both nutrients and taste place it firmly on this list. Buckwheat is a rich source of many trace minerals, including manganese, magnesium, and copper. It’s also a good source of B vitamins pantothenic acid, niacin, folate, thiamine, and choline.
Additionally, it’s a great source of resistant fiber, which has been shown to lower blood sugar after meals, help weight loss, reduce food cravings, and improve diabetes. Its slightly grainy texture and distinctive earthiness goes great in recipes like buckwheat pancakes or galettes, and is a key ingredient in Japanese soba noodles. When cooking buckwheat on its own, remember to coat the grains in egg, oil, or butter and toast them in a pan before adding water to avoid winding up with a pot of swollen mush. When it comes to buckwheat it’s important to remember not all buckwheat is gluten free, so it’s good to always check the label.
This ancient grain was originally cultivated in the dry climes of African and northern China, but has since permeated every region of the globe and even continues to be a staple for a third of the world’s population. In the past, European and American farmers largely used millet as feed for birds and livestock. However, in recent years, this miniscule grain has skyrocketed in popularity as gluten free diets have become more mainstream.
Millet’s highly alkaline nature makes it easily digestible and soothing to the stomach, in addition to providing dietary fiber, iron, B-vitamins, manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium. This versatile seed is great for making risotto or serving alongside sautéed vegetables or beans, and almost quadruples in size when cooked, so it’s also great for a cook on a budget.
Unlike rolled oats, which have been steamed and flattened in a refining process, whole oats still have their bran intact, making them chewier and much more robust than your run-of-the-mill oat. Whole oats contain a specific type of dietary fiber known as beta glucan which has been shown to lower levels of cholesterol and help prevent heart disease. They also contain manganese, selenium, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc, all vital nutrients that make our bodies tick. Try using whole oats as a gluten free cereal for breakfast, in place of other grains in salads and soups, or even combined with savory ingredients for a risotto-style side.
Don’t be fooled by this grain’s miniscule size: teff, the star ingredient in the spongy, crepe-like Ethiopian flatbread recipe injera, embodies the phrase “small but mighty.” Teff is packed with as much calcium as 1/2 cup of spinach, as well as over twice the iron of other grains. Teff is thought to aid in weight loss and help prevent colon cancer. This mild, slightly sweet grain can work as a versatile gluten free flour or a smooth polenta-like dish that can be chilled and cut for grilling or frying.
If you’ve ever seen Israeli couscous, then you can pretty easily picture what sorghum looks like. However, unlike its Middle Eastern body double, sorghum packs a powerhouse of nutrients into its tiny shell. Filled with vitamins like niacin, riboflavin, and thiamin, as well as high levels of magnesium, iron, copper, calcium, phosphorous, and potassium--not to mention nearly half the daily required intake of protein--this grain can help improve digestive health, prevent certain cancers, and aid in bone health.
Sorghum kernels can be popped like popcorn, cooked up in a risotto, or served alongside sautéed vegetables or proteins. However, sorghum takes quite some time to cook (around an hour), so be sure to prepare accordingly in order to avoid serving crunchy, undercooked grains.