3-Dec 2014, by Lee Sandwith
Description and history
Quinoa (keen-wah) has become one of the most popular superfoods of late as it is extremely nutritious, is a great source of complex carbs and has a relatively high protein content compared to other grains. Although often classed as a grain, strictly speaking Quinoa is a pseudo-cereal which essentially means it’s a seed which can be prepared and eaten in a similar fashion to grains (1).
Native to South America, Quinoa was one of the main staple foods of the Inca Empire (2) with origins in production said to date back thousands of years (3). Today, Quinoa production is still predominantly South American, however, due to its enormous genetic range, experiments are underway across the globe in the US, Canada, Europe and even Africa (4).
Since Quinoa grows well in poor soil without the need for fertiliser, its almost always organic, non-GMO (5) and even though its not technically a grain Quinoa is still classed as a wholegrain superfood (6). Despite its rather localised production, the good news is that Quinoa is readily available worldwide and as has spread from health stores to most supermarkets. Although there are hundreds of different varieties of Quinoa it comes in three main types: red, white and black, all of which can be considered to be of equal nutritional value.
One of the major benefits of Quinoa is its extremely dense nutritional profile and, in particular, its high protein* content relative to other grains. Further, most grains are considered to be ‘incomplete’ proteins due to inadequate amounts of the amino acids lysine and isoleucine. However, this is not the case with Quinoa as it benefits from higher levels of both lysine and isoleucine allowing the protein to be classed as a complete protein source (7)
*this point is debatable, see below
Here’s Quinoa’s detailed nutrient breakdown per 100g (8)
- Calories: 120 kcal
- Protein: 4 grams
- Fat: 2 grams (0g saturated fat)
- Carbs: 21 grams
- Fiber: 3 grams
- Calcium: 2% of the RDA
- Folate: 10% of the RDA
- Iron: 8% of the RDA
- Magnesium: 16% of the RDA
- Manganese: 32% of the RDA
- Potassium: 5% of the RDA
- Phosphorus: 15% of the RDA
- Zinc: 7% of the RDA
Antioxidants are molecules which neutralise free radicals (9) by inhibiting the oxidation of other molecules. In health terms antioxidants are important, and are widely used as dietary supplements, as the neutralisation of free radicals is associated with the prevention of many diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
Quinoa’s dense micronutrient profile also includes antioxidant phytonutrients called flavonoids (10) which suggests that it may play an important anti-cancer role, a claim which has been supported by a number of studies (11).
Quinoa is a good source of fibre
Fibre is carbohydrate derived from plant material, the bulk of which comes from cellulose, the primary structural component of plant cell walls. From a human health perspective, fibrous molecules are indigestible and serve a number of purposes such as, amongst others, aiding digestion, toxin excretion, reduction of cholesterol in the bloodstream.
At around 3% (3g per 100g) Quinoa is said to have a relatively high fibre content when compared to other grains, however, whilst I agree Quinoa is a good quality source of fibre, it doesn’t quite stack up against some other popular healthy grains:
One other draw back is that most of the fibre comes from insoluble fibre which may not have the same health benefits of soluble fibre (12).
There are mixed views on the role of gluten in health and wellbeing these days but one undeniable fact is that some people suffer from gluten intolerance. Given that gluten is a protein composite found in wheat and related grains, Quinoa can be considered to be a gluten free product. That said, a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (13) looked at 15 strains of Quinoa and found that two of them – Ayacuchana and Pasankalla – could trigger a reaction in people with Celiac disease (14).
Low GIycemic Index (GI)
Quinoa scores 53 on the GI scale (15). This is considered to be a low score meaning it won’t cause the dreaded sugar spike and is unlikely to contribute to any related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. More importantly, coming in at around 13 (16), Quinoa scores quite low in the Glycemic Load department which, according to some, is more important that GI.
A good source of protein
I’ve left this one for last as it always leaves me in a bit of a pickle. Almost all healthy eating and nutrition authorities state high protein content as one of the main benefits of Quinoa when, personally, I don’t agree. I’m not the only one either as I’ve found a couple of good blog posts which subscribe to my view. For me, the important factor when looking at macronutrients is the calorie to macronutrient ratio; i.e. what the percentage is against total calories.
Let’s see how Quinoa stacks up against the other grains we referenced earlier in the article:
- Quinoa: 14g protein per 100g; 368 kcal; 4% protein to calories ratio
- Pearl Barley: 10g per 100g; 352 kcal; 3% protein to calorie ratio
- Buckwheat: 13g per 100g; 343 kcal; 4% protein to calorie ratio
- Oatmeal: 13g protein per 100g; 375 kcal; 3% protein to calories ratio
Stacks up ok, right? How about taking a look at how Quinoa stacks up against other top protein sources:
- Shrimp: 20g protein per 100g; 106 kcal; 19% ratio
- Chicken breast: 30g protein per 100g; 197 kcal; 15%
- Tofu: 9g protein per 100g; 84 kcal; 11%
- Lentils: 26g per 100g; 353 kcal; 7%
- Feta cheese: 14g protein per 100g; 264 kcal; 5%
Ok, I accept that this isn’t an exact science as if you search for any food on Self Nutrition Data or any other database you’ll find great variation. However, this demonstrates that the case for Quinoa being an excellent source of protein is pretty flimsy. It is obviously a great source of nutrition, however, your calories are mainly coming from carbs so it’s important to keep that in mind, especially if you’re looking to lose weight.
How to select and store
Selecting Quinoa is a very simple affair as you’re pretty much guaranteed an organic, non-GMO, gluten free product. That said, if you’re unsure, most good quality products are clearly marked with ‘NON GMO’, ‘organic’ and ‘100% whole-wheat’ labels. Quinoa is sold dry so it will store in its original packaging for months, however, you could extend its lifespan by storing in a sealed container in the refrigerator (17). Cooked Quinoa is great eaten cold and will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for about 1 week and can even be frozen and stored for much longer.
How to prepare and cook
Most come pre-washed but if you’re unsure it’s sensible to rinse the seeds with cold water. Also, most products have very simple instructions on the packaging which usually go something like this:
- 1 part Quinoa to 2 parts water
- Bring the water to the boil in a saucepan, add the Quinoa and reduce to a simmer.
- Cover and cook until all of the water is absorbed (about 15 minutes)
We’re adding more and more quinoa recipes to our archives so please check them out and let us know what you think.