Symptoms, Substitutes and What to Avoid

quinoa is a type of seed that has a grain-like texture. Although it is considered an ancient crop grown in South America, it has become more popular lately due to its high nutritional value and potential health benefits, durability, and gluten-free properties. It provides many nutrients such as protein, heart-healthy fats, fiber, iron, antioxidants, and potassium.

Although a quinoa allergy is not common, some people are sensitive to saponin, a natural chemical found on the outside of the quinoa seed. This article will discuss the symptoms of a quinoa or saponin allergy, diagnosis, treatment, and alternatives if quinoa needs to be eliminated from your diet.

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Symptoms

Symptoms of a quinoa allergy can include food allergy symptoms and reactions such as:

  • Skin: Urticaria, eczemaswelling around the lips or mouth
  • Stomach or intestinal: Upset stomach, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Eyes: Redness, itching, tearing and swelling
  • Airway: wheezing, coughing, runny nose or difficulty swallowing (these symptoms can also be a sign of a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis)

Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a serious, life-threatening medical condition with common symptoms of:

  • Pale skin color
  • Urticaria
  • Itching
  • Wheezing, shortness of breathor out of breath
  • Low blood pressure
  • Unable to pronounce more than one or two words
  • Pursing her lips to breathe
  • Use neck muscles to breathe

If you experience symptoms of anaphylaxis after consuming quinoa, seek medical attention immediately. 911 should be called for emergency treatment.

Link between quinoa allergy and saponin

There are very few reports of allergic reactions to quinoa in medical journals. Based on the limited studies available, researchers hypothesize that allergic reactions to quinoa may in fact be caused by saponin, the natural chemical that coats the quinoa seed.

Store-bought quinoa is usually pre-rinsed, which helps remove all or most of the saponin. However, it’s still a good idea to soak, rinse, and wash the quinoa to help remove any remaining saponin residue. Rinsing quinoa can also help remove its bitter taste and help the body better absorb the nutrients from the seed.

More Foods Containing Saponin

Saponin is also found in legumes, lentils, and chickpeas, so you should always wash and rinse these foods well before consuming them.

Diagnostic

If you suspect a food allergy, use a diary to keep track of the foods you eat and note when you experience symptoms. Although quinoa allergy is very rare, it is possible. Always consult a medical professional such as an allergist or immunologist to confirm your allergy. Diagnose Food Allergies may include multiple tests. The most common allergy tests are skin tests and blood tests.

Treatment

The standard treatment for food allergy is not to eat the foods you are allergic to.

However, if you accidentally consume quinoa and experience a mild to moderate reaction, you can take an over-the-counter (OTC) medication to relieve symptoms, such as antihistamines. If your reaction is severe, such as anaphylaxis (a whole-body immune response), get medical help right away. 911 should be called for emergency treatment.

If you are not allergic to quinoa but sensitive to saponins, wash the quinoa thoroughly before eating it. There are different food processing techniques manufacturers use to remove saponin from quinoa that can remove more saponin, such as pre-rinsing. The reference to the quinoa packet will help ensure the proper cleaning and cooking process.

What to avoid

If you think you may be allergic to quinoa, it’s best to eliminate or avoid the food until you see a healthcare professional for a proper allergy diagnosis.

Quinoa can be added to many different foods due to its nutritional benefits, including its high protein and fiber content. Quinoa is sometimes used alone as an accompaniment, however, since it is a neutral-tasting food, it is an ingredient that can hide in:

  • Bread
  • Cereal
  • Granola bars
  • Smoothies
  • Vegetable protein powders

It is important to know how to read an ingredient label for food allergies carefully to confirm if the ingredient has been added. If you’re eating out, tell the server about your allergy and ask them to check if quinoa is incorporated into the dish before ordering.

Cross-reactivity

If you are allergic to quinoa or saponins, there is a small chance that other foods containing similar proteins may also produce an allergic reaction due to cross-reactivity. There isn’t much research to substantiate which foods can cross-react with quinoa. One study has shown cross-reactivity with peanuts and tree nuts. However, this study was performed on rats, so its results may not be applicable to humans.

What is cross-reactivity?

Cross-reactivity occurs when two foods that look different contain similar proteins, which can cause an allergic reaction to both. An allergist or immunologist can help diagnose these allergies and/or complicated reactions.

Quinoa Substitutes

There are several quinoa substitutes. Since quinoa has a mild, slightly nutty flavor and a light, chewy texture, you can use any of these ingredients in place of quinoa in a recipe:

  • Rice: All forms of rice are gluten-free and make an excellent quinoa substitute as they have a neutral taste and similar nutritional value when it comes to fiber and calories. Even though rice is not a complete protein like quinoa, protein sources can be added such as meat or beans to increase the protein content.
  • Barley: Barley is a whole grain and contains gluten. It has a nutty flavor similar to quinoa, which means it’s a great taste substitute, but it’s not for those who have celiac disease. Barley also contains nutrients like fiber and potassium.
  • Couscous: Couscous is a meal made from semolina. Semolina is a form of wheat, which makes couscous not gluten-free. Couscous has a pearl shape and a texture similar to quinoa. Those who don’t have celiac disease can use couscous in a dish as a quinoa substitute. Couscous contains many vitamins and minerals.

When to See a Health Care Provider

If you have any of the symptoms of food allergies, you should contact your health care team to receive a proper diagnosis. If you have symptoms of anaphylaxis, seek medical attention immediately. 911 should be called for emergency treatment.

Summary

Quinoa is a uniquely nutty, nutrient-dense food. It is a plant source of complete protein and contains all nine essential amino acids. Although quinoa allergies are very rare, food allergies can occur with any food, and care should be taken in case you experience food allergy symptoms.

There are many possible substitutes for quinoa, including rice which is also gluten-free, or couscous or barley which contain gluten. If you have a food allergy, it is important to contact your health care provider immediately.

A word from Verywell

Food allergies can cause a frightening reaction and it is sometimes difficult to determine the cause of the symptoms. Learning which allergy symptoms to know and how to quickly treat an allergic reaction can be empowering.

You can also practice reading ingredient labels or telling servers about your food allergies when eating out. In addition to seeing a healthcare professional, support can be found in groups (in person or virtually) through the Food Allergy Research and Education Organization (FARE).

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is quinoa allergy common in children?

    Quinoa allergies are very rare. Overall, food allergy symptoms are more likely to appear in children and babies, but can occur at any age.

  • Does quinoa contain histamine?


  • Does quinoa cause gas and upset stomach?

    Allergic reaction symptoms may present as stomach or intestinal reactions, such as upset stomach, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. If you are allergic to quinoa, you may experience these symptoms and need to see your doctor.

Verywell Health uses only high quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts in our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact check and ensure our content is accurate, reliable and trustworthy.

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By Rebecca Valdez, MS, RDN

Rebecca Valdez is a registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition communication consultant, passionate about food justice, equity and sustainability.

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