Quinoa may be the most confusing food item for those new to Paleo and veterans alike. We’re Paleo so we eat plants, animals, nuts and seeds (in that order). Absent from that list are grains. So when asking ‘Is Quinoa Paleo?’ we must first ask:
Is Quinoa a Grain?
Nope, quinoa is not a grain.
Is Quinoa a Plant, Nut or Seed?
Yep, quinoa is a seed.
So things are actually looking quite good for the vegan superfood, but you’ve already seen the answer above so you know there’s a catch.
Why Isn’t Quinoa Paleo?
Robb Wolf eloquently explains in The Paleo Solution:
“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.”
Robb Wolf, The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet (p. 87)
And Loren Cordain goes on to explain in The Paleo Answer:
“Quinoa is a pseudo grain with origins in South America. Like amaranth and chia seeds, it contains numerous antinutrients, including saponins, protease inhibitors, phytate, and tannins. A potential health-threatening component in quinoa is its high saponin content—up to 5,000 mg/kg. In both rat and tissue experiments, saponins from quinoa seeds increased intestinal permeability.
As I mentioned, a leaky gut may lead to many health problems and is thought to be one of the essential triggers for autoimmune diseases. If you currently have an autoimmune disease or if you have a family history of these illnesses, I would definitely recommend that you avoid quinoa and all other pseudo grains.”
Loren Cordain, The Paleo Answer: 7 Days to Lose Weight, Feel Great, Stay Young (p. 128)
Polishing quinoa does reduce the saponin content as referenced in Dr. Cordain’s Is Quinoa Paleo? blog post, however he still recommends only infrequent consumption:
“Quinoa seeds may be ‘polished’ during processing to lower their saponin content, because the highest concentration of these compounds are found in the outer layer of the seed. Fresh fruits and vegetables are superior nutritionally to all whole grains, including the pseudo grains, which I recommend should be consumed infrequently.”
So quinoa is not Paleo. Granted if you’re practicing the 80/20 rule there’s plenty of room in that 20% for quinoa, though I’d much rather have a non-offensive starch like white rice instead… and quinoa tastes like a dirty old tree branch anyway ;)