Quinoa and Saponins: Dr. Cordain Responds to a Reader’s Question

quinoaSome people following the Paleo diet eat quinoa and other pseudo-grains as grain alternatives based on the encouragement of others in the nutrition community who tout quinoa as a “super-food.” Dr Cordain answers a reader’s question about why the high saponin content of quinoa can cause digestive issues and why we should be careful about reading too much into any single study.

Dave Chiasson on :

I just read this:
“What the Science Says

Emerging research appears to contradict the idea that saponins from quinoa cause inflammation. Researchers examined the inflammatory effect of saponins from quinoa. Contrary to Cordain’s theory, they found saponins possess anti-inflammatory properties and reduce inflammation by suppressing proteins involved in the inflammatory process, called cytokines. Researchers concluded that quinoa saponins may be useful as functional food components to prevent and treat inflammation. The results were published in the April 2014 edition of the “Journal of Food Science.”

Loren Cordain, PhD replied:

Dear Dave,

Thanks for bringing this paper1 to our readers’ attention. Let me remind you and our readers that this study simply involved an in vitro (tissue) study of certain immune cells (macrophages), stimulated before-hand by inflammatory agents and then exposed to saponins from quinoa in a test tube situation. None of the intervening organ systems (gastrointestinal tract, liver, kidney, full immune system, muscles, etc.) that normally would be in place in a living animal were involved in this experiment. Accordingly, any dietary compound which could cause one systemic effect (inflammation) or another in the body is murky and almost nullified by such testing.

What is needed to evaluate quinoa saponins in regard to their suspected pro-inflammatory effect would be comprehensive in vivo (in living animals) studies with both animals and humans. Since almost all dietary saponins (soaps) are known to disrupt the bi-lipid membranes of the mammalian digestive tract in a dose dependent manner, they have been shown to increase intestinal permeability.4-14 Increased intestinal permeability is a suspected etiologic factor in autoimmunity, allergy and inflammation.5-14

One of the problems with in vivo studies in humans is that it would be difficult or impossible to control all dietary and environmental agents that promote increased gut permeability and systemic inflammation. Hence single food/nutrient (quinoa) studies in humans will not be done anytime soon. Our long lifespan and the protracted time for chronic disease to take place from any single food or nutrient makes it too difficult. Nevertheless, we can gain insight into quinoa consumption and disease promotion by well-designed animal and tissue studies.

Zevallos and colleagues2,3 have shown that at least two quinoa cultivars (varieties) activate the innate and adaptive immune response in some patients with celiac disease and promote an inflammatory response. Additionally, in an animal model, quinoa caused by saponins promoted intestinal inflammation by increasing the cytokine IL-17 in intestinal villi cells.4 Note that elevated IL-17 is suspected in many autoimmune diseases.  Further quinoa saponins induced antibody responses when introduced with antigens in the guts of mice9 indicating increased intestinal permeability.

A little quinoa will have no effect, but regular consumption of this food product can be replaced by much healthier alternatives that don’t increase intestinal permeability and don’t stimulate the immune system.



[1] Yao Y, Yang X, Shi Z, Ren G. Anti-inflammatory activity of saponins from quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) seeds in lipopolysaccharide-stimulated RAW 264.7 macrophages cells. J Food Sci. 2014 May;79(5):H1018-23

[2] Zevallos VF, Ellis HJ, Herencia IL, Ciclitira PJ. S2046 Interaction Between Quinoa Proteins and Gluten Specific T-Cells. Gastroenterology. 2010 May 31;138(5):S-308.

[3] Zevallos VF1, Ellis HJ, Suligoj T, Herencia LI, Ciclitira PJ. Variable activation of immune response by quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) prolamins in celiac disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Aug;96(2):337-44.

[4] Silvina Mariela Vidueiros, Ines Fernandez, Hector Daniel Bertero, Maria Estela Roux and Anabel Nora Pallaro. Effect of quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa, W) on the intestinal mucosa of growing Wistar rats. The FASEB Journal, April 2012 vol. 26 no. 1 Supplement 1033.4

[5] Iablokov V, Sydora BC, Foshaug R, Meddings J, Driedger D, Churchill T, Fedorak RN. Naturally occurring glycoalkaloids in potatoes aggravate intestinal inflammation in two mouse models of inflammatory bowel disease. Dig Dis Sci. 2010 Nov;55(11):3078-85.

[6] Patel B, Schutte R, Sporns P, Doyle J, Jewel L, Fedorak RN. Potato glycoalkaloids adversely affect intestinal permeability and aggravate inflammatory bowel disease. Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2002 Sep;8(5):340-6.

[7] Knudsen D, Jutfelt F, Sundh H, Sundell K, Koppe W, Frøkiaer H. Dietary soya saponins increase gut permeability and play a key role in the onset of soyabean-induced enteritis in Atlantic salmon ( Salmo salar L.). Br J Nutr. 2008 Jul;100(1):120-9.

[8] Chao AC, Nguyen JV, Broughall M, Recchia J, Kensil CR, Daddona PE, Fix JA. Enhancement of intestinal model compound transport by DS-1, a modified Quillaja saponin. J Pharm Sci. 1998 Nov;87(11):1395-9.

[9] Estrada A, Li B, Laarveld B. Adjuvant action of Chenopodium quinoa saponins on the induction of antibody responses to intragastric and intranasal administered antigens in mice. Comp Immunol Microbiol Infect Dis. 1998 Jul;21(3):225-36.

[10] Gee JM, Wal JM, Miller K, Atkinson H, Grigoriadou F, Wijnands MV, Penninks AH, Wortley G, Johnson IT. Effect of saponin on the transmucosal passage of beta-lactoglobulin across the proximal small intestine of normal and beta-lactoglobulin-sensitised rats. Toxicology. 1997 Feb 28;117(2-3):219-28.

[11] Johnson IT, Gee JM, Price K, Curl C, Fenwick GR. Influence of saponins on gut permeability and active nutrient transport in vitro. J Nutr. 1986 Nov;116(11):2270-7.

[12] Onning G, Wang Q, Weström BR, Asp NG, Karlsson BW. Influence of oat saponins on intestinal permeability in vitro and in vivo in the rat. Br J Nutr. 1996 Jul;76(1):141-51.

[13] Gee JM, Wortley GM, Johnson IT, Price KR, Rutten AA, Houben GF, Penninks AH. Effects of saponins and glycoalkaloids on the permeability and viability of mammalian intestinal cells and on the integrity of tissue preparations in vitro. Toxicol In Vitro. 1996 Apr;10(2):117-28.

[14] Atkinson HA, Johnson IT, Gee JM, Grigoriadou F, Miller K. Brown Norway rat model of food allergy: effect of plant components on the development of oral sensitization. Food Chem Toxicol. 1996 Jan;34(1):27-32.

About Loren Cordain, PhD, Professor Emeritus

Loren Cordain, PhD, Professor EmeritusDr. Loren Cordain is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. His research emphasis over the past 20 years has focused upon the evolutionary and anthropological basis for diet, health and well being in modern humans. Dr. Cordain’s scientific publications have examined the nutritional characteristics of worldwide hunter-gatherer diets as well as the nutrient composition of wild plant and animal foods consumed by foraging humans. He is the world’s leading expert on Paleolithic diets and has lectured extensively on the Paleolithic nutrition worldwide. Dr. Cordain is the author of six popular bestselling books including The Real Paleo Diet Cookbook, The Paleo Diet, The Paleo Answer, and The Paleo Diet Cookbook, summarizing his research findings.

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“4” Comments

  1. Thank you, Dr. Cordain, for your reply regarding the role of in-vitro studies in nutrition science, and for reminding us how useless it is to try to extrapolate hard truths about human digestion from a single study done in a test tube.

  2. For what it’s worth, I heard years ago that quinoa needed to be washed before cooking to remove the saponins. I assumed at the time that, that was the traditional way of preparing the grains though it might have just been someone’s THINK on the subject. Due to general laziness, I didn’t bother with the washing. Over time I noticed that my gut would hurt after eating quinoa so I stopped eating it for a number of years. It finally occurred to me (Duh!) that maybe washing actually did make a difference. I now add water to cover the grains and use my hands to rub them together for a minute or two then rinse a couple of times. I haven’t had any more problems using this protocol.

  3. I’ve read that soaking grains helps remove phytic acid. Does it have any impact on saponin? I’ve seen conflicting opinions about this…

  4. I’d add to this that people need to be aware of additive adverse effects from substances like sapponins. This is wider than edible plants containing sapponins. What it means is that it is the response of, for example, the gut lining to the total load from the diet of substances that increase its permeability that is the outcome of concern. So this means that the effects from gluten, gliiadin from say wheat and saponins from quinoa (or other plants) and any consumed gut permability increasing substances must be added together to predict the response. Another way of looking at it is that a smaller dose of each can cause the same response. Of course, the human body can process a certain amount of these things but if that is exceeded then adverse effects can then eventuate. That is the idea behind the 3 meals a week (approx) that can contain some non-paleo foods it provides some leeway.

    The other point is that some of the new alleged super foods have previously been only consumed by comparatively small numbers of humans from particular areas of the world. It wouldnt surprise to hear that down the line the epidemiologists find some new associations not pointing the finger at quinoa particularly but at these various new foods in general.

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