What is Quinoa?
You’ve heard about it on TV. Maybe you’ve seen it in your health-food store.
The health benefits of quinoa are legendary, even though it only became a staple of mainstream cuisine around 2008. But what is quinoa? And, more importantly, how do you say it?
What is Quinoa? Quinoa is most often pronounced KEEN-wah. It’s an ancient Peruvian superfood that humans have been eating for at least 5,000 years!
The edible part of the quinoa plant, the part served steaming hot in good restaurants, is the seed.
These tiny little dots usually have to be harvested by hand and thoroughly processed. As you can imagine, that’s pretty labor-intensive!
Quinoa likes both high altitude and cool weather. Today, some varieties are grown in California, the U.K., and a few places in Europe. The number one producer of quinoa in the world, though, is Peru, birthplace of the now-iconic health food.
A Brief History of Quinoa
Starting with a wild but tasty weed, the resourceful farmers of the Andes developed modern quinoa as a crop about 3,000 years ago.
It eventually became so important that the Inca revered it as sacred. Conquistador Francisco Pizarro banned quinoa when he overthrew the Incan empire, but around 2006, quinoa experienced a massive comeback.
People all over the world have since discovered that quinoa combines all of the best parts of food: it’s delicious, nutritious, and ethically agreeable.
The United Nations declared 2013 “The Year of Quinoa” and used this plant as a way to focus on world nutrition.
But as good as quinoa is for Peruvian farmers and the U.N., it’s even better for you.
Quinoa’s Health Benefits
Unlike other grain-like foods, such as wheat, quinoa is packed with protein. A single serving is about a cup and a half of cooked quinoa, and that packs in a lot of nutrients.
While quinoa is technically a carbohydrate, I get the feeling that Dr. Atkins would have approved.
Nutrients in one serving of quinoa
- Calories: 120
- Protein: 4.4 grams (9% of what you need per day)
- Iron: 8% of your recommended daily intake
- Dietary fiber: 11% of your recommended daily intake
- Vitamin B6: 6% of your recommended daily intake
Quinoa also contains critical trace minerals like manganese, which helps prevent some aging-related illnesses; phosphorus, which is as important as calcium for building strong bones; and magnesium, which allows your body to produce energy. No wonder people call quinoa a superfood!
Here’s why you should be eating quinoa right now:
1. Quinoa provides 11% of your daily dose of the critical amino acid lysine. That alone is a good reason to head to the health food store if you’re a vegan!
2. The high iron and protein content of quinoa makes it an ideal food for vegetarians, too.
3. Quinoa is completely gluten-free. Celiacs can eat as much of it as they’d like!
4. Looking for a Passover meal? Quina is theoretically kosher, as it is a seed and not a leavened grain. However, some quinoa growing practices themselves may be questionable, so always look for a label.
5. Thanks to its nearly universal appeal, quinoa is an ideal dish to bring to a potluck. It can be made vegan and it’s naturally gluten-free, low-calorie, sugarless, low in sodium. I think that covers about half of the major diets out there!
6. Allergies to quinoa itself appear to be quite rare. The saponins on raw quinoa can trigger some sensitive people, but usually those are processed out long before the quinoa reaches your food store. A good rinse prior to cooking can get rid of any that are left.
7. If you want to look hip, look no further. Quinoa is as cool as it gets.
8. Helping people much? As I mentioned before, quinoa is revolutionizing the economy of Peru, especially for the working person.
9. Quinoa is an easy dinner. It literally takes 15 minutes to prepare on the stovetop and goes with almost any meat, or vegetable combo you can dream of.
10. Your doctor will beam. I could list quinoa’s credentials here again, but I’ll spare you. You get the idea: quinoa is just great for your body. Your bones, brain, muscles, and joints will all thank you.
How Many Calories in Quinoa?
Quinoa calories may clock in at a lightweight 120 per serving, but calories aren’t king.
What matters more than the calories in quinoa is how good you feel after you eat it. In other words, after eating quinoa, do you want to keep packing in more food or do you feel naturally satisfied and full?
In other words, they didn’t feel full until they’d overeaten. But research subjects who ate quinoa reported feeling satiated.
They found that they were able to stop eating even though they’d consumed relatively few calories. Surprised? Don’t be! This is neither the last nor the most significant of quinoa’s benefits!
Quinoa – Anti Diabetes Antioxidant
Oprah popularized quinoa as a health food in 2008, and NASA was interested in its nutritional profile long before that, but recently quinoa’s health benefits have gained acclaim from nutritionists and dieticians.
Part of this is because it’s a gluten-free source of antioxidants.
There’s a lot of complicated science behind antioxidants, as well as a lot of questionable pseudo-scientific claims about their curative powers, but the short, scientifically sound story is that antioxidants are just generally good for your health.
When they’re included as part of a complete diet, they can help prevent something called oxidative stress, a major contributor to the development of heart disease, diabetes, and many other chronic illnesses.
The antioxidant quercetin, in which quinoa is extremely rich, is particularly effective at managing type 2 diabetes.
Quinoa and Digestion
On top of this embarrassment of riches, quinoa is so easy to digest that some researchers have actually looked into the chemistry of how so many people, regardless of dietary limitations, are able to consume it without trouble. Even in comparison to other gluten-free foods, quinoa stands out as being uniquely easy to eat. Better yet, the triglyceride levels of research subjects who ate quinoa were lower than for other gluten-free foods, meaning they’d reduced their risk of developing heart disease.
There are so many health benefits to quinoa that it can be hard to list them without sounding…well, unbelievable.
What Science Says About Quinoa
Here’s what science has told us so far. Quinoa…
- Reduces your risk of developing heart disease
- Reduces your risk of developing diabetes
- Makes managing diabetes easier
- Makes you feel full faster, meaning you’ll have an easier time managing your weight
- Is absurdly easy to digest
- Lowers your triglycerides in comparison to a diet of similar foods
- Possesses a nutritional profile so complete that scientists are still pondering the idea of bringing it into space to feed astronauts
How to Eat Quinoa
If quinoa burgers are available in space, sign me up! And if the idea of quinoa burgers is new to you, I encourage you to try them.
We’ll get into just how to eat quinoa in a few minutes, but take a gander at these delicacies if you want a preview.
There are quinoa-chickpea burgers, cheesy Italian quinoa burgers, quinoa burgers made from even more healthy veggies, and my personal favorite: vegan quinoa-black bean burgers. Take your pick and thank me after dinner.
How is Quinoa Healthy?
Quinoa is a whole grain. That means that its nutritional value comes from its three natural components. Let me explain.
All whole grains are the beginnings of new life.
Quinoa, before it’s processed and made into a food, contains all the nutrients needed to grow a whole new plant. By eating it, you absorb that good stuff yourself.
Quinoa’s Nutritional Value
Here’s how the source of quinoa’s nutritional value breaks down.
- Bran is the grain’s shell. It protects the inner nutrients, but has a lot of its own merit as a consumable. Think fiber, which helps prevent cancer, and vitamin B. The bran of quinoa also packs a bunch of those trace minerals we talked about before.
- Endosperm is, yes, a funny word. However, whether you know it or not, you love endosperm!
- This is the most delicious part of any whole grain. If it were up to nature, the endosperm would be the source of the energy that lets the new plant grow.
- Quinoa’s protein powers come from here. It’s also a good source of carbohydrates. Don’t wince. You need those too!
- Quinoa’s germ is the part of the seed that would someday sprout and become a new plant. If we didn’t eat it first, that is. Germ is the hidden source of quinoa’s vitamins.
Quinoa for Vegans
So is quinoa good for you? Clearly. But people often ask, “is quinoa healthy?” only when they want to lose weight.
It’s a great idea to eat quinoa if you’re trying to shed a few pounds, but there’s much more to this healthy grain than weight management. Ask any vegan.
One of the primary problems of a plant-based diet is protein. Remember, a healthy adult needs to consume between 5 and 6 ounces of protein per day, which adds up to between 141 and 171 grams.
A vegan will get most of this from beans, seitan, tempeh, tofu, and other high-protein power foods.
Furthermore, vegans have an extra challenge in that they also need to be conscious of an amino acid called lysine, which is tied closely to protein digestion.
Here’s where vegan diets can become tricky. There’s plenty of protein and lysine in the plant world, but it can be hard for a human metabolism to get enough without also consuming too many calories.
This can lead to other health problems, as we know, but we’re also newly aware that quinoa packs a hard nutritional punch without a huge calorie load, and it happens to include a ton of that precious amino lysine. So how useful is it for protein replacement? (see below)
How Much Protein in Quinoa?
To understand how much protein there is in quinoa, let’s compare it to rice.
One third of a cup of white rice packs in about 211 calories. (And let’s be honest, you won’t be full.) want to guess how much protein you get with that? Four grams.
Hardly worth the effort once you factor in the calories and the empty carbs.
Now let’s give you 222 calories of quinoa – enough to fill about half your plate at dinner.
Of those calories, 8.1 grams will be from protein. So why waste your precious calorie count eating rice when something so much more nutritious is available?
Quinoa may not be able to provide for all of your daily protein needs, but it’s significant enough that it’s worth paying attention to for a vegan who needs to take every bite into account.
Plus, you can’t argue with the 400-plus milligrams of lysine you get from each serving. Protein is important, but without lysine, your body won’t process enough of it to keep you healthy.
Quinoa and other foods…
The nutritive value of quinoa can be goosed very easily. As a food, quinoa plays very well with others and the calories in cooked quinoa can vary according to what you add to it.
For example, a vegan who is watching her protein intake may want to make a black bean quinoa salad instead of just eating the quinoa by itself.
Not only are beans also calorie-light and nutrient-dense, but the combo of beans a quinoa features a who’s-who of important aminos.
And that’s just for starters! By definition, quinoa goes well with a large number of different foods.
Things quinoa goes well with:
- Almost every type of beans, including – surprise! – pinto beans
- Cheeses from brie to blue
- An enormous variety of vegetables, including beets and eggplant
- Any sauce or dressing you’d like. Tahini, guacamole, and strawberry balsamic dressing are popular choices.
What is Quinoa Good For?
This depends on what you need.
- As a side dish, it can stand on its own with minimal spices and additions.
- As a main dish, you can incorporate it into the cuisine of almost any diet, tradition, or restriction.
It’s just a grain! Try substituting it for rice and you’ll see what I mean.
Cooked quinoa’s nutrition profile is similar enough to other grains that you’ll find it goes well with almost every recipe that originally incorporated millet, barley, rice, or pasta. (Especially pasta!)
Let’s face it: nutritionally, noodles should probably be one of those “special occasion” foods you eat on birthdays and at restaurants. As far as your protein and vitamin needs are concerned, they don’t give you much.)
Quinoa – The Grain of Athletes
Quinoa’s origin as a mainstay of South American cuisine says a lot about the needs of the ancient farmers of Peru and Bolivia, where quinoa comes from.
The Andes, which seem so inhospitable to outsiders, nurtured a culture for whom the best way to send a message a hundred miles was to employ a Chasqui, or a professional long-distance runner.
Those elite athletes needed an efficient, highly nutritious food to keep them going as they traversed hundreds of miles through dizzying mountains, flying over rope bridges to unite one of the great empires of history through a totally unique human communication network.
If you’ve ever wondered why a grain like quinoa does have so much protein, then there’s your answer. That’s also why quinoa is good for you: when you eat it, you’re eating like an Incan expert runner.
Generations of careful artificial selection went into making this grain an ideal superfood for athletes. When people ask you where quinoa is from, tell them it’s from a country that literally ran on running. No wonder quinoa’s protein content is so high.
So you’re convinced. You’re ready for your first taste of quinoa. You’ve got a bag of pretty, ivory-white grain and some friends to share.
Here, before you at last, is the superfood of the Inca, the health phenomenon that Oprah, NASA, and every health food blog on the planet have been raving about for years. You’re faced with just one final question: how do you eat it?
How to eat quinoa depends on how you like to eat your grains in general.
It’s versatile. Though it doesn’t replace bread in most recipes – quinoa gluten does not exist, so generally quinoa doesn’t hold together on its own – quinoa can go into bread.
If you like to make your own at home, this is an easy way to introduce quinoa into your diet. Throw raw quinoa into the dough during the mixing phase and turn your standard loaf into healthy multi-grain.
Here are my top ten favorite additions to homemade multi-grain bread:
- Quinoa (of course!)
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Wheat germ
- Brown rice. You read that right! Try it and be amazed.
As a variation on standard bread, quinoa muffins make a great treat. Just remember that nothing beats good common sense health rules; Even quinoa can’t banish the negative effects of too much sugar.
Quinoa as a Main Course
Now that people around the world are growing quinoa, even in backyards and home gardens, recipe possibilities are multiplying as fast as home chefs can experiment.
Some find out what quinoa is made of, culinarily speaking, by just diving in and subbing out other whole grains, as I recommended before.
I’m a firm believer in the put-it-in-bread approach for newcomers. But once you’re ready for quinoa as a main course, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to make a quinoa bowl.
The basic technique for cooking quinoa is boiling for 15 minutes, or until the boiling liquid is absorbed.
Many people like to rinse the raw quinoa and toast it before throwing it into the water, but I’ve found those steps are optional.
And that’s it! One cup of quinoa and two cups of water (or broth) yields three cups of fluffy, delicious, cooked quinoa in less than twenty minutes. From there, the sky is the limit.
Quinoa is both a yielding and a forgiving ingredient, and since almost everyone seems to like it, it’s hard to pack too much of it into a meal.
If experimentation isn’t your jam, there are lots of wonderful possibilities for quinoa from Peru, where quinoa comes from.
Quinoa pudding is a great example: Creamy, hearty, and unique, you’ll be asked to make it again and again once your family has tried it once. Plus, it’s a dessert. Whoever thought such a simple grain could have so many uses?
The lifespan of cooked quinoa will vary according to its recipe, but one way to determine how long to keep your quinoa dish is to look at the other ingredients.
Quinoa pudding includes milk, so it should be eaten within a couple days. Basic fluffy quinoa is good for about a week in the fridge, though you can store it for up to twelve months in the freezer.
Always check for a rancid odor before you cook or eat quinoa.
Raw seeds that are too hard or moldy at all indicate that the whole batch has gone off and should be thrown out immediately. Even quinoa, superfood extraordinaire, can go bad!
Where does quinoa go from here?
The story of quinoa is far from over. While it’s becoming more commonplace around the world, quinoa is still expensive and hard to obtain for many working-class folks.
Production is still increasing across the globe, though. Someday, the price of quinoa may fall to the point that everyone worldwide can easily enjoy this nutritional miracle.
Already, it’s catching on far from Peru and from the high-octane American and European health markets where it has become so popular.
Quinoa in India is gaining status as a boutique food item, usually obtainable online, and firms in China are exploring the possibility of producing quinoa as a lucrative cash crop in the mountainous regions of Shanxi.
What Quinoa Means?
The meaning of quinoa isn’t static over time, but the arc of an ancient tale. First, it was a crux of Andean society, a marvel of selective breeding that brought this whole grain to a pinnacle of social importance.
Then, it was a forbidden tradition maintained in secret by a few brave individuals who risked everything to keep their culture alive. Today, what does quinoa mean? Is quinoa a carb count? Do we care more about quinoa fiber content or calorie breakdowns?
Is it better to eat quinoa and beans or quinoa in bread? Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that food isn’t just food. It’s how people relate to each other.
The best way to learn about another person is to eat a meal with them, to share your food and try theirs.
That’s what happens every time you explore a new cuisine. By stretching your culinary boundaries, you’re expanding your world to include the experiences of other people and other peoples.
When we think about quinoa, we just can’t reduce it to a set of nutritional statistics. Sure, it’s good for your body.
But there’s a fascinating, subversive, powerful journey behind this ancient grain. It’s a tradition laden with history – a history you’re becoming part of even as you read this article!
So when we sit down at the table, let’s do so with respect, not just for quinoa’s superfood status, but for where and who it came from, for the farmers who developed it, saved it, and ultimately shared it with the world.
In the time-honored practice of people everywhere, let’s eat, not just to consume nourishment, but to connect with each other across lands, cultures, and time itself.
Have you tried quinoa? How was it? Let me know in the comments section below!
Happy eating, everyone.