Are Grains and Pseudograins Healthy?

Are Grains and Pseudograins Healthy?

Are Grains and Pseudograins healthy

There is quite a bit of confusion about the differences between grains and pseudograins, and whether they are altogether healthful additions to the human diet. Grains and pseudograins are botanically related, technically seeds, which have different compounds and features that impact human health differently. Here we explore the differences between grains and pseudograins which are not allowed on a Grain Free Diet, and why grains and pseudograins may not be a healthy addition for some individuals. 


What Are Grains and Pseudograins?

Grains are the fruit that is typical of the family Gramineae (Poaceae), which includes several different types of commonly known grains, such as Rice, Wheat, Barley, Rye, Oats, Corn, Sorghum, Millet, Teff.  Grains are technically an individual fruit (caryopsis) of the grass, often referred to as a “kernel.”  

Like grains, pseudo-grains may be used much in the same way as true cereals or grasses.  Unlike grains, pseudo-grains are not from grass, but a flowering broadleaf pseudo-cereal. Pseudo-grains come from the family Polygonaceae, Amaranthaceae, Chenopodiaceae and include Buckwheat, Amaranth, and Quinoa.[1]



Reproductive Evolution of Grains and Pseudograins

Reproductively speaking, all plants evolved in specific ways to disperse their seeds so that their progeny may grow into a plant. Some plants evolved to enlist the help of animals that will eat, fertilize, and disperse their seeds.  Other plants evolved so that their seeds may be carried through the wind.  From this evolutionary perspective, it would appear that plants that evolved fruits to entice animals to eat them were likely the more advantageous plan. Animals can travel large distances and may disperse the seeds bound in nutrient-rich animal feces.

Unfortunately, grasses and broadleaf plants did not take this evolutionary approach. Instead, the seeds of the grasses and broadleaf pseudocereal plants evolved biochemical defense mechanisms to deter their consumption, as opposed to encouraging it. Some of the known defense mechanisms of grains and seeds can be particularly dangerous for humans. Some contain toxic compounds, some inhibit the absorption of nutrients, while others are known to contain other autoimmunigenic compounds or chemical triggers for autoimmune-mediated disease.


Biochemical Defenses of Seeds

It’s hard to think of plants having biochemical defenses, but the defenses of plants are well known in the realms of both botany, and toxicology, alike.  For example, cherry pits and apple seeds contain cyanide, chili Peppers contain capsaicin, and castor beans contain one of the deadliest natural toxins known to man: ricin.  In fact, an amount of purified ricin powder the size of a few grains of table salt is enough to be lethal to an adult human. [2]

Although they come packaged in such healthful and flavorful casings, the cherry tree, the apple tree, the pepper, and the leguminous castor bean also evolved bitter and displeasing flavors and textures of the seed itself to discourage their consumption.  For this reason, it is unlikely (and lucky!) that an individual or an animal would eat an entire meal comprised of cherry pits, apple seeds, chili peppers, or castor beans.  However, grasses and broadleaf pseudograin plants did not develop displeasing flavors to deter the consumption of their seeds.  Instead, they took a slightly more insidious evolutionary route to ensure the proliferation of their species. And, unfortunately for some, we often do consume entire meals comprised of grains, and pseudograins.  

While the bulk of research supports the inclusion of whole grains and pseudo grains as a healthful addition to the diets of healthy individuals, this is not universally true for everyone and may be particularly precarious nutritional advice for many individuals— especially those with an autoimmune condition


Biochemical Defenses of Grains and Pseudograins

While many dietary guidelines worldwide suggest consuming a portion of whole grains daily, grains and pseudograins do contain various biochemical components which are known to cause immunogenic dysfunction and disease in susceptible individuals.  

Grains and pseudograins did not evolve for human and animal consumption and must undergo some form of processing such as sprouting, soaking, or cooking before they are consumed, as grains and pseudograins are considered toxic to humans in their raw seed state. While sprouting, soaking, and cooking grains and pseudograins does mitigate some of their undesirable traits, these processes do not always render grains and pseudograins benign for human health.  

While many dietary interventions and research focus on the exclusion of the protein matrix known as gluten almost exclusively, other non-glutenous cereal grains contribute to the manifestation of inflammation and autoimmunity by way of fostering intestinal permeability and may initiate pro-inflammatory responses, as well. [3]  The proteins of grains and pseudograins are classified into water-soluble and salt-soluble albumin and globulins, alcohol-soluble prolamins, and insoluble glutelins. [4, 5]  Albumins and globulins are considered “metabolic proteins” while prolamins and glutelins are biologically considered to be the storage proteins or “defense proteins” of the plants.[6]


Prolamins: Prolamins are plant storage proteins that are necessary for seed growth that is found in both grains and pseudograins alike. Prolamins make up roughly 50% of the protein content in some mature cereal grains and contain a high amount of proline and glutamine. [6]

Alcohol-soluble prolamins are resistant to degradation by gastric and intestinal proteases, and have been detected undigested, and translocated into other organs of the body as soon as 30 minutes after ingestion. [7]  This lack of degradation and subsequent translocation is known to cause inflammation, insulin resistance, and influence fat metabolism[ 8 ]as well as induce autoimmunity in susceptible individuals  [9] in a biological process known as molecular mimicry. [10Prolamins found in grains and pseudograins have contributed to the cross-reactivity experienced by individuals with autoimmune conditions and sensitivity to gluten, yet non-glutenous grains and pseudograins are nevertheless routinely offered as alternatives by the booming gluten-free industry. 


GrainProlaminProlamin Percentage



Glutelins:  Glutelin is another type of seed protein similar to prolamins, that are found in grains and pseudo-grains. Both prolamins and glutelins are made of highly repetitive sequences of glutamine and proline. The greatest difference between the prolamin and glutelin is the size of the amino acid glutamine and proline sequences, and their solubility.  

While the prolamin gliadin (a component of gluten) is the most well known and well-studied biologically active autoimmunigenic peptide involved in the manifestation of Celiac Disease, in vivo and in vitro tests reveal the underappreciated potential for autoimmunigenic activity of glutelin storage proteins.[11]   Research suggests that not only do the well-studied prolamin fractions of grains have autoimmunigenic and pro-inflammatory properties, but glutelin fractions of pseudograins may also potentially contain harmful sequences for other autoimmune conditions as well. [12, 13, 14, 15


GrainGlutelinGlutelin Percentage




While pseudograins like amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa have been hailed for their high protein content, nutrient density and lack of gluten, they may still pose a potential threat to people with autoimmune disease.  The following graph indicates the prolamin and glutelin content found in pseudograins amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa. 

As previously mentioned, although prolamins and glutelins found in grains and pseudograins have contributed to cross-reactivity experienced by individuals with autoimmune conditions and sensitivity to gluten, non-glutenous grains and pseudograins are nevertheless routinely offered as alternatives by the gluten-free industry. 


SpeciesProlamin PercentageGlutelin Percentage

Pseudocereals: Chemistry and Technology.  Edited by Claudia Monika Haros and Regine Schoenlechner. Wiley-Blackwell, Feb 2017



Final Thoughts

A current belief is that as long as a grain or pseudograin does not contain gluten, it is therefore benign for individuals with autoimmune disease and gluten intolerance.  While some evidence may support this belief,  mounting evidence suggests that this may not be entirely true in light of the evidence that has emerged since it was first discovered that Celiac patients did not improve on a gluten-free diet. [16]  Thus, a grain and pseudograin-free diet may be a better approach for individuals who do not respond well to a gluten-free diet.  Further, this evidence supports the exclusion of grains and pseudograins in the Grain-Free Gluten-Free Certification program. 


As always, it is best to talk to your doctor about whether or not avoiding grains and pseudograins is right for you, as individual sensitivities and needs for dietary intervention vary.



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One Response

  1. Hello, I think I remember reading that there can be a link to grains and estrogen dominance. What are your thoughts on this.

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