While it may seem like quinoa (KEEN-wah) has been rising to the top of the health food chain over the past several years, in reality, this grain, which is technically a seed, has been cultivated around the world for nearly 5,000 years! It’s known as a pseudocereal because it isn’t a grass like wheat or rice, despite its grainy texture.
What Is Quinoa?
Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is a flowering crop in the amaranth family. Known for its edible seeds, quinoa is naturally gluten free, high in protein, and contains all nine essential amino acids.
Quinoa originated in the Andean region of South America, likely in the area around Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia. The Incas believed quinoa was a sacred grain and referred to it as the “mother of all grains.” It was initially very difficult for European explorers to return with viable quinoa seeds as the humid conditions of travel prohibited the grains from surviving the trek. These days it’s common to find quinoa and quinoa-derived products in health food stores all over the world.
Over the centuries, the modern version of quinoa has likely evolved into the variety you can find at your market: slightly more translucent and possibly possessing a larger “seed.” But the nutritional value is more than likely the same, having been a staple in South American indigenous diets as a valuable source of fiber, magnesium, B-vitamins, vitamin E, iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, monounsaturated oleic acid, omega-3 fatty acids, and so many essential antioxidants.
There are 120 types of quinoa. The most common are white, red, and black, with white quinoa being the most available and widely distributed. Red quinoa tends to be used more often in salads due to its ability to hold its shape after cooking. And black quinoa has a slightly more earthy, sweeter taste.
Is Quinoa a Grain?
While we eat, cook, and serve quinoa like many other favorite grains, including rice, barley, farro, millet, or oatmeal, the truth is quinoa isn’t a grain at all. It’s a seed of a plant that is more closely related to spinach, beets, and chard. This may be one of the reasons why it’s so nutritionally dense, and also why it is naturally gluten free! It’s even possible to eat the leaves of the quinoa plant. Check out what the plant version looks like here.
Quinoa also has a little telltale tail, shaped sort of like a curly-cue at the end of the seed. The cooking process releases this “tail,” and it’s actually the germ of the seed that separates slightly and is a quick and easy visual cue to let you know your quinoa is cooked to perfection and the nutty flavor ready to be enjoyed.
Quinoa Fun Facts
2013 was a big year for quinoa, as it was designated the “International Year of Quinoa” by the United Nations and took its rightful place among superfoods. As a highly nutritive, easily digestible, and easily harvested grain, it has the potential to contribute to food sources and security worldwide.
In fact, NASA scientists have long considered quinoa a prime candidate food to bring along and harvest on long-term space missions, mostly due to its intense and well-rounded nutritional profile.
Quinoa Health Benefits
One cup of quinoa has just 220 calories and is loaded with 8 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, and more than 58% of the RDA of manganese. It’s also a rare grain in that it is a complete protein and has a small amount of omega-3 fatty acids. Let’s explore the health benefits of quinoa in more detail.
Quinoa Is Rich in Flavonoids
Quinoa also contains two powerful flavonoids, quercetin and kaempferol. Flavonoids are antioxidants that contribute to many health benefits including preventing certain cancers and improving the immune system. These particular flavonoids have also been shown to provide anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and anti-depressant effects.
Quinoa Is High in Dietary Fiber
Quinoa is very high in fiber, more than most other popular grains. In fact, this study tested four varieties of quinoa and found that quinoa has more than twice as much fiber gram for gram as other grains such as brown rice, millet, or oats do. However, it’s worth noting that boiled quinoa contains less fiber as the water is very quickly absorbed into the grain, expanding it and diluting the fiber content.
The majority of fiber in quinoa is insoluble fiber, which isn’t broken down during digestion and helps to bulk up your stool for more comfortable elimination. With 8 grams of insoluble fiber in 1 cup of dry quinoa, it’s a great constipation kicker. And 1 cup of dry quinoa does contribute 1.3 grams of soluble fiber, which plays a role in lowering cholesterol, reducing blood sugar levels (and thereby protecting against type 2 diabetes), and improving satiety during weight-loss efforts.
Quinoa and a Gluten-Free Diet
Due to the increase of awareness around gluten sensitivity and celiac disease, nutritionists and scientists have been looking to quinoa as an alternative source to use in naturally gluten-free bread, crackers, and more.
Studies show that by using quinoa instead of other gluten-free ingredients such as tapioca, potato, corn, or rice flour, a person with gluten sensitivity can increase the nutrient value and satisfaction of a gluten-free diet.
Quinoa and Essential Amino Acids
Amino acids are essential proteins that the body needs to perform almost all its metabolic functions. Many amino acids cannot be produced within the body, and therefore, it becomes essential to find food sources rich in amino acids to provide them naturally.
When a food contains all nine essential amino acids, it is deemed a complete protein. Unfortunately, many plant foods fall short of this designation because they do not contain all of the essential amino acids (they are usually missing or deficient in lysine).
Quinoa is an exception because it is a complete protein and an excellent source of all amino acids. It’s a particularly useful grain for vegetarians and vegans to ensure proper nutrition when other sources of protein aren’t present, such as those found in meat or dairy.
Quinoa Is High in Antioxidants
Antioxidants, like the flavonoids mentioned earlier, are vitamins and minerals that can neutralize free radicals and toxins in the bloodstream and help to expel them. Antioxidants are also believed to help the body fight the effects of aging and several diseases or complications.
Quinoa and Weight Loss
Quinoa has been shown to help boost metabolism and also increase satiety, leading to a longer lasting feeling of fullness (and less of a need to eat more)!
The high protein content of quinoa contributes to this in tandem with the high fiber amount. Quinoa is also a naturally low glycemic food, which has been shown to reduce calorie intake as well.
While actual studies linking quinoa to weight loss are not available at this time, the nutrient profile suggests many of the same correlations between other high-fiber, low-glycemic, and high-protein foods, which have been linked to successful weight loss and weight-maintenance efforts.
How to Cook Quinoa
There are as many healthy quinoa recipes as there are varieties of quinoa, which can star as the main ingredient or play a supporting role as a side dish.
Unlike most other whole grains, quinoa is fast cooking and a great alternative to use in dishes that ask for rice, farro, couscous, or barley. Whereas most other grains take about 30 minutes to prepare, quinoa only takes about 15-20 minutes to cook in boiling water.
The best quinoa is going to be an organically grown variety, as organic ensures the delivery of the most intact nutrients. However, and lucky for all of us, it is actually quite rare to find quinoa in a non-organic variety.
It’s important to rinse quinoa off in a fine mesh strainer before you cook it to prevent the bitter taste from the outer coating called saponin. It’s also possible to purchase pre-washed varieties to make it even faster to prepare.
A good ratio for cooking quinoa is 2 parts liquid to 1 part quinoa. In this equation, 1 cup of dry quinoa produces 3 cups of cooked quinoa. You can also use a rice cooker to make preparation even easier.
To get you started on your quinoa journey, here’s a recipe we love.
Quinoa Green Grain Bowl
This healthy quinoa recipe is packed with delicious, fresh spring vegetables that will help boost your immunity, leave you feeling full, and keep your energy up for the rest of the day. Feel free to play around with the veggies in this bowl. Consider adding fresh artichoke hearts, garbanzo beans, or mix several different greens for a broader flavor profile. If you’re not vegan, add some freshly grated parmesan cheese or chopped organic chicken or tofu to change up the flavors in this yummy quinoa bowl.
- 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil (and extra to top the finished bowl)
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup chopped Brussel sprouts
- 4-5 large asparagus stalks, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon vinegar
- 1/3 cup cooked organic quinoa (cook according to directions on package)
- 1 cup spinach, chard, or other leafy green, chopped
- 1 cup broccoli
- 1/4 small avocado, diced or sliced thinly
- 1 green onion, sliced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Lemon (optional)
- Heat oil in a skillet (nonstick if you have it) over medium heat. Add garlic and Brussel sprouts. Stir for about 5 minutes. Toss in asparagus and cook until asparagus is a bright green color.
- Heat quinoa (or if it’s freshly cooked, keep warm).
- Toss all ingredients into a bowl. Top with green onion, salt and pepper to taste, and a splash of more olive oil.
- Add an optional squeeze of lemon to taste and to freshen the flavor profile.
- Fluff it all up and enjoy!
Caution for Quinoa
For all of its beneficial nutrition, quinoa does have a few downsides that particular people should be aware of. Quinoa is high in oxalates, which can reduce the absorption of calcium in pre or postmenopausal women, and can also cause certain issues for people with a history of kidney stones.