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The Surprisingly Painful Side Effects of Quinoa—And How To Avoid Them

Last Update: May 24, 2024

Side Effects of Quinoa Infographic click here

Food allergies are more common than most people may think [1]. People may be allergic to gluten, nuts, fish, dairy, eggs, soy, and even superfoods like quinoa. Some may not even know they have a quinoa allergy.

Though this pseudo-cereal has skyrocketed to superfood status in recent years, a small subset of people report intense stomach pain after eating quinoa.

What is Quinoa

To understand the quinoa side effects you are experiencing, you first have to understand what quinoa is and why it may cause a stomach ache or allergic reaction in some people. Quinoa is actually a seed that contains saponins, albeit a gluten-free one with an incredible nutritional content

Saponins are naturally occurring glycosides that are bitter-tasting [2].

What is Quinoa Good For? 

Because of its very mild flavor, quinoa is easy to incorporate into almost any dish—from breakfast porridge to a classic Korean bowl. In most recipes, quinoa acts as a stand-in for white rice, which many try to avoid because of its high carbohydrate content and low nutritional value. 

Contrarily, quinoa is full of nutritional benefits: it’s high in fiber, which keeps your digestion regular and helps to make you feel full longer. It’s also a complete protein, which is a food that contains all of the essential amino acids that your body needs — a trait that’s very rare among plant-based foods. Quinoa is also loaded with antioxidants and essential vitamins and minerals [3], and it’s higher in protein than other grains. 

Why is Quinoa Difficult to Digest? 

Quinoa allergies can lead to a surprisingly painful stomach ache. Ultimately, for some, quinoa is not easy to digest. Just google “quinoa stomachache” and you’ll find tons of complaints—from intolerable stomach pain to severe indigestion to much nastier issues. (Some that this writer can unfortunately attest to from personal experience.)

High fiber

One possible reason behind this digestive distress? Quinoa has nearly double the fiber of most grains. If your body isn’t used to consuming a ton of fiber, and suddenly you double down on a quinoa salad, it could definitely throw you for a loop … and lead to diarrhea, gas, bloating, and discomfort.

Saponin

And then there’s the issue of saponin, a soapy, naturally occurring chemical that coats quinoa grains. In nature, saponins discourage birds from eating the seeds, as they’re bitter and slightly toxic. Though little research has been done on the topic, some people speculate that these compounds could cause stomachaches and digestive troubles in especially sensitive people. Some even suggest that saponins could puncture tiny holes in your digestive tract. 

More than ever, gut health plays such an important role in how to digest foods, so it’s important to listen to your stomach and avoid foods that cause digestive issues.

Quinoa Allergy Symptoms

While the infamous quinoa stomach ache may likely be caused by an increase in fiber or saponins, some people can have a legitimate quinoa allergy. Think you might be experiencing symptoms of a quinoa allergy? [4] Here are some signs to be on the lookout for:

  • Stomach pain
  • Indigestion
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Scratchy throat and/or coughing

If a person is experiencing rapid heart rate, trouble breathing, and low blood pressure after eating quinoa these could be signs of anaphylaxis and you should seek immediate medical attention.

How to Cook Quinoa Properly 

That’s why many cooks recommend washing your quinoa thoroughly before cooking it. Beyond upsetting your stomach, saponins also taste really bad—some describe their flavor as bitter, and even soapy. Before preparing quinoa, rinse it thoroughly in a fine mesh sieve to remove saponins. Some quinoa manufacturers have begun pre-washing the seeds, but to be on the safe side, give it a rinse anyway.

If that doesn’t do the trick, you might want to pass on the quinoa all together. Since not much research has been done on the topic, there’s no foolproof way to prevent reactions to quinoa. Just listen to your body—any food it doesn’t tolerate, nutrient-dense superfoods included, probably isn’t worth it.

Quinoa Alternatives

If quinoa doesn’t agree with you, there are plenty of other options for your salads, grain bowls, and other healthy dishes. Try some of these quinoa alternatives:

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before changing your diet or healthcare regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

view our infographic on the surprising side effects of quinoa

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Annalise Mantz

Annalise is a foodie, Brussels sprouts lover, grammar nerd, and political pet aficionado.

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