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

January 6, 2016

Gluten, nuts, fish, dairy, eggs, soy—name almost any food, and you’re almost guaranteed to find someone who has developed an allergy to it.

Even superfoods. Take quinoa, for example: 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 why quinoa might cause some problems, you first have to understand what it is. Quinoa is actually a seed, albeit a gluten-free one with an incredible nutritional content

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, and it’s higher in protein than other grains. 

Why is Quinoa Difficult to Digest? 

But it can lead to some serious stomach problems. 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.)

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, bloating, and discomfort.

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.

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.

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

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Annalise Mantz

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

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