Commonly held beliefs about quinoa are that it is not a grain, is easy to digest, has lots of nutrients, and is healthier for you than cereal grains. I used to believe this too, especially when I was doing the vegetarian thing. Recent science, however, tells us a different story about the effect of grains and grain-like foods on the human body.
As Robb Wolf puts it in the sixth chapter of his book:
You’ve likely heard the expression, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…” Quinoa is botanically not a grain, but because it has evolved in a similar biological niche , Quinoa has similar properties to grains, including chemical defense systems that irritate the gut. In the case of Quinoa, it contains soap-like molecules called saponins. Unlike gluten, which attaches to a carrier molecule in the intestines, saponins simply punch holes in the membranes of the microvilli cells. Yes, that’s bad. Saponins are so irritating to the immune system that they are used in vaccine research to help the body mount a powerful immune response. The bottom line is if you think grains or grain-like items like Quinoa are healthy or benign, you are not considering the full picture.”
It’s definitely not as bad as wheat, but it does make holes in your intestines through which pathogens can leak into your body, causing an immune response, raising systemic inflammation. Higher levels of inflammation put you at higher risk for a wide range of diseases and other problems. Health food indeed!
You may ask, “but doesn’t rinsing quinoa remove the saponin?” I always hoped so when I rinsed my quinoa. However, in retrospect, it tends to rain a lot outside, and if a simple rinse with water removed this protective layer, wouldn’t the birds be all over it? Quinoa has a reputation as an easy crop to grow because the saponin coating is so effective at keeping the birds away. Indeed, industrial agribusiness uses quinoa saponin as a pesticide for other crops. My guess is that at least some saponin remains after rinsing.
Unfortunately, saponin is not the end of the story on the toxins in quinoa and other grains and pseudo-grains. Plants have other chemical defence strategies for protecting their seeds from predation that is far more insidious: prolamins and lectins. In wheat, rye, barley and millet is there is a lectin called Wheat Germ Agglutinin (WGA), but all grains and pseudo grains — quinoa included — have similar molecules. These molecules are very difficult for your gut to break down, and is made even harder by enzyme inhibitors in grains which specifically thwart your ability to break them down (and in so doing prevent the absorption of other nutrients). So they tend to remain intact, undigested. This works out well for the plant, since undigested seeds pass through animals, allowing the seeds to spread and the plant to propagate. That’s not the insidious part though.
Some prolamins have a molecular structure that “fool” transport molecules in your gut into carrying them across the intestinal lining, fully intact. In the process, the tight junctions of the intestinal wall are loosened, allowing other materials from within the intestine into the blood stream. Even at very low concentrations, this causes an immune response, resulting in higher systemic inflammation. This is known as “leaky gut” — look it up, and you’ll find that researchers are connecting it to practically every autoimmune disease. That’s fairly insidious, but that’s still not the end of the story.
The truly insidious part is the effect of molecular mimicry. To your body, prolamin/lectin molecules can look very similar to some of the body’s native proteins. Although your immune system attacks the foreign invaders, other parts of your body treat them like friendly, native proteins, allowing them to attach to various cells throughout the body. In the following excerpt from Robb Wolf’s book, he explains what happens when WGA binds to a cell in the pancreas:
If the WGA is attacked by the immune system and an antibody is made against it (because the body thinks WGA is a bacteria or virus), that antibody will not only attach to WGA, it can also attach to the protein in your pancreas. When that WGA antibody attaches to your pancreas, it precipitates a wholesale immune response—attacking that tissue. Your pancreas is damaged, or destroyed, and you become type 1 diabetic. If that protein happened to be in the myelin sheath of your brain, you would develop multiple sclerosis.
Robb goes on to say that recent research shows that prolamins affect the transglutaminase group of enzymes, which are involved in modifying proteins for practically every tissue in the human body. The result is that these rogue molecules could end up having adverse effects anywhere in the body.
Now that is insidious! Who would have thought that seemingly innocent plants could be so evil?
You may be thinking, “wait a minute, isn’t this leaky gut business only for people with accute gluten sensitivities, such as those with celiac disease? And isn’t gluten only in wheat?” The following is from a live interview with Matt Lalonde, a chemist at Harvard University who follows the leading edge of research in this area:
So gluten is part of the family of proteins called prolamins; they’re found in all grains. And the autoimmune diseases that have been tested for the presence of the leaky gut, all present the leaky gut. So not all autoimmune diseases have been tested for the presence of leaky gut, but the ones that have been tested all show that the leaky gut is there. So the avoidance of all grains is good advice for people with autoimmune disease.
But why should normal people care? Well it turns out that there’s a confounding factor here. …When you eat grains, you’re getting gluten, you’re getting a variety of other antinutrients that are going to cause some gut dysfunction and compromise intestinal permeability, and they are not population specific. So they affect everyone, but it turns out that some individuals with autoimmune diseases are going to be hyper-responders.
So those antinutrients are lectins. In the lectin family you’ve got wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), phytohemagglutinin, soybean agglutinin, peanut lectin, concanavalin that are the most studied. Then you have phytic acids and phytates which inhibit digestive enzymes and impair mineral absorption. And then you have saponins, which also contribute to the leaky gut. None of those are population-specific. There might be hyper-responders in people with autoimmune disease, but they’re not population specific. Gut dysfunction is going to impair digestion and absorption of nutrients. It’s going to cause low level systemic inflammation by allowing gram-negative bacteria into the bloodstream.
That’s another precipitating factor for other autoimmune diseases, in fact. And interestingly, the leaky gut is now being linked to various aspects of the metabolic syndrome. So we’ve got non-alcoholic fatty liver disease that is directly linked to endotoxin translocation; that’s lipopolysacharides from the gram negative bacteria that are making their way to the liver and causing liver damage. And you also have hypercholesterolemia because it turns out that LDL particles can bind and neutralize the lipopolysacharides. Lipopolysacharides is something that is included in the membrane of gram negative bacteria.
What Dr. Lalonde is essentially saying is that eating grains causes leaky gut in everyone — or at least, their effects are not constrained to those with late-stage gut damage, such as those with celiac disease, ulcerative colitis or those with autoimmune disease. Such people have more obvious, extreme responses when they eat grains, but to some extent it can affect anyone. Over time, the accumulation of damage may result in an autoimmune disease, or other health problems.
How does the phrase “healthy whole grain” sound now? I always laugh when I hear that. Then cry.
1. Like grains, it is the seed of a plant, whose function is reproduction.