For years, you’ve assumed that quinoa is good for you. People toss around words like “complete protein” and “amino acids” when talking about quinoa. But a growing number of people believe quinoa has a big problem: it’s loaded with toxic compounds called saponins.
What’s the truth about quinoa? Should you really limit your quinoa intake? Let’s take a closer look at these so-called toxic compounds.
What Are Saponins?
Saponins are chemical compounds found within quinoa. Some believe saponins are toxic. They claim they irritate the intestinal lining and cause inflammation in your digestive tract, among other problems.
A quick Google search will back up this claim: many people believe that saponins are toxic and dangerous.
So what’s the truth? Is there any scientific evidence backing up these claims?
Well, here’s what we do know. Saponins are bitter compounds that are naturally present in quinoa. They can also be found in plenty of other foods you probably eat – including vegetables, herbs, and legumes.
The name “saponins” comes from the fact that the compounds act like soap suds: they lather up when mixed with water. In fact, one of the best sources of saponins in the world is soapwort, which is an herb often used to make natural cleansers.
Why do people think saponins are toxic?
Well, saponins aren’t totally innocent: plants produce saponins as a form of pest control. When pests eat the plant, they taste the bitterness of the saponins, and are more likely to find a tastier food source.
In other words, saponins are specifically designed to make plants taste worse.
Are Saponins Dangerous?
Now that you know what saponins are, it’s time for the important question: are they actually dangerous?
Scientific America’s Nutrition Diva, Monica Reinagel, answered this question on a recent podcast. Reinagel is a board-certified, licensed nutritionist and professionally-trained chef and author. She also has letters after her name like MS, LD/N, and CNS. In any case, she knows what she’s talking about. Here’s what she had to say about the toxicity of saponins in quinoa:
“Although ingesting large amounts of these bitter phyto-compounds could cause some stomach irritation or other unpleasant effects, they’re generally harmless in small amounts. Even better, these chemicals often have health benefits. In fact, many of the phyto-compounds that are thought to be most beneficial to human health fall into this category of natural pesticides.”
Unless you’re eating 10 pounds of quinoa a day, the toxicity of saponins is not something you should be concerned about. Like it or not, you ingest trace amounts of toxins every day – even when you breathe. There’s no avoiding most of them, but they’re harmless in small amounts. Saponins are one such toxin.
Instead of worrying about the toxicity of quinoa and saponins, you should focus instead on the health benefits, of which there are many.
What Are the Health Benefits of Saponins?
Some of the health benefits of saponins and quinoa include all of the following:
-Binding to cholesterol, which reduces cholesterol levels
-Neutralizing free radicals, which inhibits inflammation and can even slow the growth of diseases and cancer
Monica Reinagel cites multiple studies where animals (mice, rats, and piglets) were given saponin-rich foods like quinoa. In these studies, these animals generally lost weight.
Reinagel admits that part of this weight loss could be attributed to the fact that quinoa has a bitter flavor, so animals are naturally encouraged to eat less of it (it’s not as tasty as other foods).
However, another part of the weight loss effects of quinoa stems from the fact that quinoa increases the secretion of gut hormones that trigger satiety – which means you feel full more quickly.
Additionally, there’s evidence that quinoa prevents your intestines from absorbing nutrients, which means you get less nutritional value from the food you’re eating, which means your body doesn’t absorb as much energy from the food.
Overall, these effects can lead to weight loss.
Should You Worry About Toxic Saponins in Quinoa?
Overall, it seems you have little to worry about when looking at the “toxic” saponins in quinoa. In fact, most of the saponins in quinoa aren’t found in the grains: they’re found in the leaves of the quinoa plant.
There are some saponins on the grains of quinoa. However, you can remove most of these saponins simply by rinsing your quinoa before cooking. Additionally, a lot of quinoa brands wash their quinoa before they sell it. And, quinoa manufacturers also specifically breed quinoa with low saponin content because it gives the quinoa a sweeter, mellower taste – not the bitter flavor associated with saponins.
That being said, Reinagel says that there are some situations where quinoa can damage your intestines: if you have a condition or illness where your intestines are already irritated or inflamed, then even the low saponin content in quinoa could potentially damage your system.
“If you’re generally healthy, and eating quinoa doesn’t give you any noticeable symptoms, then I don’t think you need to worry about your quinoa secretly killing you,” explains Reinagel.
Ultimately, quinoa is still a proven superfood with a multitude of health benefits. Unless you have an existing intestinal condition and you’re eating lots of quinoa every day, then you have no reason to worry about the toxicity of saponins in quinoa.
Thanks to Nutrition Diva Monica Reinagel for much of the research and quotations featured in this post.