If we (more like global leaders) suddenly decided to make seeds/grain a common global currency, QUINOA (pronounced “KEEN-wah”) would be the best contender. In the last ten years, I have seen quinoa popularity rise at a global level. I have been able to find quinoa salads and bowls in Singapore as well in Corsica where a French chef in a resort restaurant had transformed it into an amazing melon-mint salad . In fact, the United Nations declared the year 2013 as the “Year of Quinoa.” Clearly, the seed has spread far and wide from its origin in South America.
What is Quinoa: grain, seed, or something else?
When I bought quinoa the very first time, it reminded me of a grain my mom often used back in India to make homemade sweets and cereal–amaranth. My impression was not far off from the fact. Quinoa and amaranth belong to the same family–Amaranthaceae . Quinoa is a pseudocereal–the seed of a herbaceous plant and is cultivated as a grain crop. True cereals are edible parts of plants cultivated as grasses, i.e. wheat, corn, etc. When it comes to its culinary creations, quinoa is used almost like a grain.
Quinoa is an ancient pseudocereal
In my opinion, as an avid home cook and former food analyst, quinoa has managed to outshine most other grains in popularity in the last decade. While quinoa may seem like a new ingredient in your grocery stores, its origin dates back to around 5000BC in the area bordering Lake Titicaca in the Andes region (border of Bolivia and Peru in South America) . Interestingly, despite increased global demand of Quinoa, the crop production largely remains close to its roots, i.e. Peru and Bolivia. The Incas treated the seed as ceremonial and sacred and called it “The Mother Grain.” Inca warriors ate fat-infused quinoa balls to maintain their stamina. This gives historical clues to quinoa’s energy-boosting attributes.
Quinoa–high in nutrition but let’s understand the protein context
Let me start out by shining some light on the mineral-rich profile of quinoa. One serving, 1/4 cup dry or ~3/4 cup cooked, offers 20% of daily value of magnesium–a mineral important for maintaining a healthy immune system, strong bones, and healthy heart (more on this later). Unfortunately, the standard diet, especially in the U.S., does not offer adequate intake of this fourth most important mineral in your body. Quinoa is also high in potassium–a mineral important for maintaining water and salt balance.
In addition to minerals, quinoa is gluten-free and is very high in fiber, which helps you feel full without eating too much. Foods high in fiber release sugar slowly in your blood stream, which can be a big factor in preventing type 2 diabetes. Quinoa also has low glycemic index–a system of measuring the effect of carbohyrates on blood sugar. Therefore, if you have rice as a staple in your diet, try replacing it a few times/week with quinoa. Spoiler alert: if quinoa is not readily available where you live, millet and amaranth offer almost similar health benefits.
The protein hype: Quinoa is one of the few plant-based foods that includes all the nine essential amino acids–histidine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine–that must come from food. Protein from animal-based foods–meat, dairy, and eggs- tend to contain all essential amino acids. However, the biggest myth that has been percolating for many decades is that you need to consume proteins featuring all essential amino acids (also touted as complete protein). But the new research shows that even if you eat only plant-based diet, even then your body is completely capable of deriving all the essential amino acids given you eat adequate number of calories and whole foods. If you would like to explore this topic in detail, I would highly recommend The China Study–a book that unveils the biggest research on the subject and one of my favorite books that gives solid, evidence-backed advice on nutrition.
The second myth is that quinoa is super high in protein. Yes, when comparing to other grains, quinoa offers higher proportion of its total nutrients as protein, but one serving may not be enough toward your main meal. I often combine (one serving of) quinoa with other beans, lentils, tofu/tempeh, or tons of vegetables to make it more filling for a main course–lunch or dinner (stay tuned for recipes.)
What variety should you buy?
There are about 120 known varieties of quinoa, but there are only three that are commonly available. It is easy to differentiate as they are color coded–white/ivory, red, and black. The lighter variety, when cooked, tastes slightly bland and yields slightly mushy texture, compared to the darker varieties. The darker varieties hold the seed shape better and have slightly nutty flavor. I often use the white variety in place of rice or making energy balls and the darker varieties (the red is my favorite) for salads and bowls. But you can totally interchange the varieties in any recipe calling for quinoa without changing the end result too much.
Should you soak or not soak quinoa before cooking?
Most grains, lentils, seeds offer a lot of health benefits as well as countless ways of use in different recipes. However, most grains (and lentils/seeds) during the evolutionary process have developed protection measures against natural predators by having antinutrients. Quinoa is no exception. Quinoa is coated with saponins as a pest control measure. If you are wondering if saponins have anything do with soap, you are correct. When soaked in water, saponins produce soap-like foam. The commercially-available quinoa goes through processing to remove saponins. However, it is super important to wash quinoa under running water till you don’t see any bubbles. You can also soak it overnight with a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice and then rinse it to get rid of saponins. The acidity helps remove antinutrients by breaking them down. If you are in a hurry, just dry roast quinoa in a skillet after washing it thoroughly to get rid of saponins.
Buying and storing tips
Quinoa is more expensive than most other grains, lentils, and beans; however, here are some tips and tricks to make it more affordable:
- Buy it in bulk; negate that advice if you are trying quinoa first time. What if you don’t like it and all that bulk-buying goes to waste.
- Mix it with other grains/lentils/beans/veggies to extend.
- Buy from stores that offer it in bulk bins. I have often noticed that bulk bins offer slightly lower prices than the packaged products.
Although quinoa is a seed, it also has a shelf life. If buying in a package, check and use it by the “USE BY” date. If buying from bulk bin (and after opening the package), store quinoa in an airtight bag/box in refrigerator for up to six months. Remember most grains have fats, which tend to go rancid if stored at hot temperatures.
On Amazon, Anthony’s Organic white quinoa is a trusted and tried brand and is the cheapest among all organic options. It is worth repeating that if you are trying quinoa for the first time, buy it from the bulk bin section of your grocery store or a local coop. When possible, buy the organic version.
Avoid going on a mono-diet of quinoa
Undoubtedly, quinoa is a nutritional powerhouse; no wonder, The United Nations declared 2013 as “Year of Quinoa.” However, adopting quinoa to a degree where you start excluding other grains in your diet is not a great idea. First, going on a monotonous diet of quinoa can turn you against it as we humans crave diversity of flavors, textures and much more in our diets. Second, eating quinoa day in and day out (read every meal) could possibly have the negative compound effect of small amount of saponins, especially if you are not careful about soaking or washing before cooking.
In a Nutshell…
- Add quinoa to your repertoire of other grains. If you rice is a staple in your diet, try replacing a few times with quinoa.
- Buy organic, whenever is possible and store in refrigerator after opening the package.
- Quinoa is an energy-boosting pseudocereal with low glycemic index. If you are trying to lose weight, high GI grains occasionally with quinoa.
Resources and Recommendations
- Wikipedia (also the picture source for Quinoa plant)
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fruits, Vegetables, and Herbs