- What's New and Beneficial About Quinoa
- Health Benefits
- How to Select and Store
- Tips for Preparing and Cooking
- How to Enjoy
- Individual Concerns
- Nutritional Profile
The word “quinoa” is pronounced “KEEN-wah.” It comes from the Spanish word, quinua, which itself comes from the word “kinwa” or “kinua” in the Quechua dialect. Because quinoa is typically consumed in the same way as the cereal grasses (wheat, oats, barley, and rye), it is usually grouped together with them. However, quinoa is not a cereal grass at all, but rather a member of the same food family that contains spinach, Swiss chard, and beets. Many researchers refer to quinoa as a “pseudocereal.” This term is typically used to describe foods that are not grasses but can still be easily ground into flour. The scientific name for quinoa is Chenopodium quinoa.
Researchers date the popularity of quinoa to approximately 3000 BC when its consumption became widespread in the Andes mountains regions of South America. About 250 different varieties of quinoa were already present at that time, giving quinoa a remarkable tolerance for different growing conditions. Quinoa is able to survive high altitudes, thin and cold air, hot sun, salty or sandy soil, little rainfall, and sub-freezing temperatures.
In addition, all parts of the plant could be eaten, including not only the seeds that we buy in the store and that may also have been dried and ground into flour, but also the leaves and stems. Betacyanin pigments present in some quinoa leaves given them their bright reddish color, but it’s also possible to find orange, pink, purple, tan, and black quinoa as well. Quinoa leaves taste similar in flavor to the leaves of their fellow chenopods, namely, spinach, chard, and beets. Cooked quinoa seeds are fluffy and creamy, yet also slightly crunchy. They may also sometimes have an amazing translucent appearance. The flavor of the cooked seeds is delicate and somewhat nutty.
The history of quinoa is clearly rooted in South America, in the Andes region that is currently divided up between the countries of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Along with maize, quinoa was one of the two mainstay foods for the Inca Empire that had its start around 1200 AD. Quinoa was a food that could survive in a wide variety of growing conditions. Along with its unusual nutrient richness, its adaptability helped it gain popularity among the Incas for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Most quinoa consumed in the United States still comes from South America. Peru remains the largest commercial producer of quinoa, harvesting 41,079 metric tons in 2010. Bolivia was the second largest producer with 29,500 metric tons. Together, these two South American countries produced nearly 99% of all commercially grown quinoa in 2010. In terms of export sales, quinoa has risen to the level of an $87 million dollar business in these two countries.
Some commercial quinoa production takes place in the United States, although total cultivation remains under 10,000 pounds. The Colorado Rockies have been a place of special interest for quinoa production, and some production has also occurred in the states of California, Washington, and Oregon.
Interest in quinoa has recently spread to India, including the North-India Plains and high-altitude areas of the Himalayas, other parts of Asia, including Japan, as well as to Africa and parts of Europe. Designation of the year 2013 as “The International Year of the Quinoa” by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) may also trigger greater attention to this food worldwide.
What’s New and Beneficial About Quinoa
The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has officially declared that the year 2013 be recognized as “The International Year of the Quinoa.” Proposed by the government of Bolivia and receiving strong support from many Central and South American countries, quinoa has now been singled out by the FAO as a food with “high nutritive value,” impressive biodiversity, and an important role to play in the achievement of food security worldwide. We realize that quinoa remains unfamiliar to many people, especially in the practical sense of cooking and recipes. But we hope that situation will change, given the remarkable nature of this easily-prepared, nutrient-rich food.
Researchers have recently taken a close look at certain antioxidant phytonutrients in quinoa, and two flavonoids — quercetin and kaempferol — are now known to be provided by quinoa in especially concentrated amounts. In fact, the concentration of these two flavonoids in quinoa can sometimes be greater than their concentration in high-flavonoid berries like cranberry or lingonberry.
Recent studies are providing us with a greatly expanded list of anti-inflammatory phytonutrients in quinoa. This unique combination of anti-inflammatory compounds in quinoa may be the key to understanding preliminary animal studies that show decreased risk of inflammation-related problems (including obesity) when animals are fed quinoa on a daily basis. The list of anti-inflammatory phytonutrients in quinoa is now known to include: polysaccharides like arabinans and rhamnogalacturonans; hydroxycinnamic and hydroxybenzoic acids; flavonoids like quercetin and kaempferol; and saponins including molecules derived from oleanic acid, hederagenin and serjanic acid. Small amounts of the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), are also provided by quinoa.
In comparison to cereal grasses like wheat, quinoa is higher in fat content and can provide valuable amounts of heart-healthy fats like monounsaturated fat (in the form of oleic acid). Quinoa can also provide small amounts of the omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Given this higher fat content, researchers initially assumed that quinoa would be more susceptible to oxidation and resulting nutrient damage. However, recent studies have shown that quinoa does not get oxidized as rapidly as might be expected given its higher fat content.
This finding is great news from a nutritional standpoint. The processes of boiling, simmering and steaming quinoa do not appear to significantly compromise the quality of quinoa’s fatty acids, allowing us to enjoy its cooked texture and flavor while maintaining this nutrient benefit. Food scientists have speculated that it is the diverse array of antioxidants found in quinoa — including various members of the vitamin E family like alpha-, beta-, gamma- and delta-tocopherol as well as flavonoids like quercetin and kaempferol—that contribute to this oxidative protection.
Overall Nutrient Richness
Perhaps the most striking health benefit provided by quinoa is its overall nutrient richness. When the nutrient composition of this food is analyzed in depth, the results are unusual and striking. While quinoa can be eaten in the same way as a grain, or ground into flour like is so commonly done with grains, it lacks some important nutritional shortcomings of grains.
One of the shortcomings overcome by quinoa involves its protein content. Most grains are considered to be inadequate as total protein sources because they lack proper amounts of the amino acids lysine and isoleucine. The relatively low level of both lysine and isoleucine in the protein of grains is what causes these amino acids to be considered as the limiting amino acids (LAAs) in grains. In other words, these LAAs prevent grains from serving as complete protein sources in our diet. By contrast, quinoa has significantly greater amounts of both lysine and isoleucine, and these greater amounts of lysine and isoleucine allow the protein in quinoa to serve as a complete protein source.
In terms of fat content, quinoa once again overcomes some of the shortcomings of most grains. Since it takes nearly 350 calories’ worth of whole wheat to provide one gram of fat, whole wheat is not generally regarded as a significant source of fat, including essential fatty acids or heart-healthy monounsaturated fats (like oleic acid). By contrast, since it only takes 63 calories’ worth of quinoa to provide one gram of fat, quinoa is typically considered to be a valuable source of certain health-supportive fats. About 28% of quinoa’s fatty acids come in the form of oleic acid, a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, and about 5% come in the form of alpha-linolenic acid or ALA—the omega-3 fatty acid most commonly found in plants and associated with decreased risk of inflammation-related disease.
Quinoa also contains significant amounts of certain tocopherols (vitamin E family members) largely absent from most grains. For example, one cup of quinoa provides 2.2 milligrams of gamma-tocopherol—a form of vitamin E that has been more closely associated with certain anti-inflammatory benefits in health research. Quinoa is also a good source of RDA nutrients like folate, zinc, and phosphorus in contrast to whole wheat, which does not qualify as a good source in our rating system.
Quinoa is an equally impressive food in terms of its overall phytonutrient benefits. In many Central and South American countries, the leaves of the quinoa plant are valued for their betacyanin pigments, which provide some of their bright reddish shades. But even the seeds themselves can be phytonutrient-rich and can provide significant amounts of antioxidants like ferulic, coumaric, hydroxybenzoic, and vanillic acid.
Considered in combination, these diverse nutrient benefits of quinoa give it uniqueness among grain-related foods. For us, this high overall level of nourishment provided by quinoa may qualify as its greatest health benefit.
Most of the quinoa studies that we’ve seen in this area have been animal studies. However, we believe that the preliminary indications for humans are very promising. Research has shown the ability of daily quinoa intake to lower levels of inflammation in fat (adipose) tissue in rats and in the linings of their intestine as well.
We’re not surprised at either of these results because a wide range of anti-inflammatory nutrients is already known to be present in quinoa. This list of anti-inflammatory nutrients includes phenolic acids (including hydroxycinnamic and hydroxybenzoic acids), members of the vitamin E family like gamma-tocopherol, and cell wall polysaccharides like arabinans and rhamnogalacturonans.
Somewhat more controversial in this anti-inflammatory nutrient list are the saponins found in quinoa. Saponins are the bitter tasting, water-soluble phytonutrients found in the outer seed coat layer of quinoa. More specifically, the saponins found in quinoa are derived from hederagenin, oleanic acid, phytolaccagenic acid, and serjanic acid. The quinoa saponins have been shown to have both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. However, soaking, boiling, and milling can reduce their presence, and, in general, this reduced presence is usually regarded as a good thing since it can make the quinoa much more enjoyable for most people to eat. In research to date, the relationship between and anti-inflammatory benefits of quinoa and saponin levels has yet to be clarified. However, even though more research is needed in this particular phytonutrient area, the list of anti-inflammatory nutrients in quinoa remains impressive.
We have yet to see large-scale human studies on intake of quinoa and risk of type 2 diabetes or risk of cardiovascular disease. However, we would expect such studies to show significantly reduced risks. With respect to type 2 diabetes, quinoa simply has too many things in common with other foods known to decrease risk. At the top of the list here would be its fiber and protein content. Quinoa is a good source of fiber—one of the key macronutrients needed for
Quinoa is a good source of fiber — one of the key macronutrients needed for healthy blood sugar regulation. It also provides outstanding protein quality, even in comparison to commonly-eaten whole grains. Strong intake of protein and fiber are two dietary essentials for regulation of blood sugar. Because chronic, unwanted inflammation is also a key risk factor for the development of type 2 diabetes, the diverse range of anti-inflammatory nutrients found in quinoa also makes it a great candidate for diabetes risk reduction.
Animal studies have already demonstrated the ability of quinoa to lower total cholesterol and help maintain levels of HDL-cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol). While we would expect these results in humans as well, we would also expect the anti-inflammatory nutrients in quinoa to help protect human blood vessels from inflammatory damage. Protection of this kind would also provide a reduced risk of many cardiovascular diseases, including atherosclerosis. We expect to see future, large-scale human studies demonstrating the benefits of quinoa for risk reduction in this area of cardiovascular disease.
The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients in quinoa also make it a likely candidate for cancer risk reduction in humans. Given the preliminary animal results involving the digestive tract, risk reduction for colon cancer may turn out to be a special area of interest.
A final area of likely benefit involves decreased risk of allergy — especially for individuals who have adverse reactions to certain grains and seek practical alternatives. Already, several public organizations have recommended quinoa as a substitute for wheat whenever the avoidance of this gluten-containing grain is required. The low-allergy potential of quinoa — coupled with its relatively high digestibility — has also made it a food of special interest in the diet of children and toddlers.
How to Select and Store
Quinoa is generally available in prepackaged containers as well as bulk bins. Just as with any other food that you may purchase in the bulk section, make sure that the bins containing the quinoa are covered and that the store has a good product turnover so as to ensure its maximal freshness. Whether purchasing quinoa in bulk or in a packaged container, make sure that there is no evidence of moisture. When deciding upon the amount to purchase, remember that quinoa expands during the cooking process to several times its original size. If you cannot find it in your local supermarket, look for it at natural foods stores, which usually carry it.
The most common type of quinoa you will find in the store has an off-white color but red and black quinoa are becoming more available. You may even be able to find a tri-color mixture sold in packages or bulk bins.
Store quinoa in an airtight container. It will keep for a longer period of time, approximately three to six months, if stored in the refrigerator.
Tips for Preparing and Cooking
Tips for Preparing Quinoa
Processing methods used in the commercial milling of quinoa usually remove most of the saponins found in the outer coat of the quinoa seeds. Because the quinoa saponins are largely responsible for its bitter taste, many people chose to rinse and rub the seeds after purchase to remove any bitter taste that may remain in the seeds. An effective method to do so is to place the quinoa seeds in a fine-meshed strainer and run cold water over the quinoa while gently rubbing the seeds together in your hands. After completing this process, you can taste a few seeds to determine if a bitter taste remains. If it does, simply continue this rinsing and rubbing process until you no longer taste a bitter residue.
The Healthiest Way of Cooking Quinoa
To cook the quinoa, add one part of the grain to two parts liquid in a saucepan. After the mixture is brought to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer and cover. One cup of quinoa cooked in this method usually takes 15 minutes to prepare. When cooking is complete, you will notice that the grains have become translucent, and the white germ has partially detached itself, appearing like a white-spiraled tail. If you desire the quinoa to have a nuttier flavor, you can dry roast it before cooking; to dry roast, place it in a skillet over medium-low heat and stir constantly for five minutes.
Quinoa is a perfect food to include on a gluten-free diet, since it not only lacks gluten but doesn’t even belong to the same plant family as wheat, oats, barley, or rye. Some studies also show quinoa flour to have higher-than-expected digestibility. Both of these factors would be expected to decrease the risk of an adverse reaction to quinoa — especially in comparison to a cereal grass like wheat.
While it is possible to make baked goods and pasta out of 100% quinoa flour, most companies combine quinoa flour with other flours (like tapioca flour or rice flour) or with oatmeal to produce a lighter texture. Products made with 100% quinoa flour typically have a heavy and dense texture, sometimes referred to as “truffle-like.” When combined with rice flour or tapioca flour, however, quinoa-based products definitely qualify as gluten-free and should help reduce the risk of adverse reactions.
How to Enjoy
— Combine cooked, chilled quinoa with pinto beans, pumpkin seeds, scallions, and coriander. Season to taste and enjoy this south-of-the-border inspired salad.
— Add nuts and fruits to cooked quinoa and serve as breakfast porridge.
— For a twist on your favorite pasta recipe, use noodles made from quinoa.
— Sprouted quinoa can be used in salads and sandwiches just like alfalfa sprouts.
— Add quinoa to your favorite vegetable soups.
— Ground quinoa flour can be added to cookie or muffin recipes.
— Quinoa is great to use in tabouli, serving as a delicious (and wheat-free) substitute for the bulgar wheat with which this Middle Eastern dish is usually made.
Quinoa is not a commonly allergenic food and is not known to contain measurable amounts of purines. Because quinoa does not belong to the plant family containing wheat, oats, barley, and rye, it is also a gluten-free food. Some studies also show a higher-than-expected digestibility for quinoa, making it a food less likely to produce adverse reactions. However, like all members of the Amaranthaceae-Chenopodiaceae plant family (including spinach, chard, and beets), quinoa does contain oxalates, and sometimes in substantial amounts. The oxalate content of quinoa ranges widely, but even the lower end of the oxalate range puts quinoa on the caution or avoidance list for an oxalate-restricted diet.
Quinoa is food of high protein quality and is typically regarded as an adequate source of all essential amino acids, including lysine and isoleucine. It provides a variety of antioxidant phytonutrients, including ferulic, coumaric, hydroxybenzoic, and vanillic acid. Antioxidant flavonoids including quercetin and kaempferol are also especially plentiful in quinoa. Anti-inflammatory polysaccharides in quinoa include arabinans and rhamnogalacturonans. Many members of the vitamin E tocopherol family are provided by quinoa, including important amounts of gamma-tocopherol. Quinoa is a very good source of manganese. It is also a good source of phosphorus, copper, magnesium, dietary fiber, folate, and zinc.
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