Quinoa, often described as a "superfood" or a "supergrain," has become popular among the health conscious, with good reason. Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah or ke-NO-ah) is packed with protein, fiber and various vitamins and minerals. It is also gluten-free and is recommended for people who are on a gluten-free diet.
Often used as a substitute for rice, quinoa is commonly considered to be a grain and is usually referred to as such, but it is actually a seed. "The yellowish pods are the seed of a plant called Chenopodium quinoa, native to Peru and related to beets, chard and spinach," wrote Nicole Spiridakis in a story for NPR. When cooked, quinoa is soft and fluffy, with a slightly nutty taste. It can also be made into flour, flakes and various foods like pasta and bread, according to the Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council.
Quinoa comes from Peru, Bolivia and Chile. It grows in the Andes Mountains, and for millennia it has been a food staple for the native people there. According to a field crops article by the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota, quinoa means "mother grain" in the Incan language.
Recently, the surge in quinoa demand has pushed production beyond South America to more than 70 countries, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Today, large-scale quinoa crops grow in China, North America, France and India. Quinoa production is picking up in Africa and the Middle East, according to a 2016 assessment in Frontiers in Plant Science.
According to Spiridakis, there are 1,800 types of quinoa. Quinoa seeds can be black, red, white, purple, pink, yellow, gray, orange, green or yellow. In the United States, white (traditional) and red (Incan) quinoa are commonly available. While the white variety is more flavorful, the red contains more nutrients.
"Quinoa is a good source of protein, fiber, iron, copper, thiamin and vitamin B6," said Kelly Toups, a registered dietician with the Whole Grains Council. It's also "an excellent source of magnesium, phosphorus, manganese and folate." Toups emphasized that a "'good source' means that one serving provides at least 10 percent of the daily value of that nutrient, while 'excellent source' means that one serving provides at least 20 percent of the daily value of that nutrient."
A 2017 study in the Journal of Nutraceuticals and Food Science determined that compared to other cereals, which people around the world rely upon for macronutrients, quinoa has more protein and a greater balance of essential amino acids. Nutritionally, it resembles milk protein more than cereals like wheat, corn and barley. It also surpasses cereals in amounts of dietary fiber, lipids, calcium, iron, zinc, phosphorus and vitamins B1, B2, B6, C and E.
Quinoa health benefits
A complete protein
"Quinoa is most famous for being one of the only plant foods that supplies complete proteins, offering all essential amino acids in a healthy balance," Toups told Live Science. Essential amino acids are ones that the body cannot produce on its own, and complete proteins contain all of them in roughly equal measure. There are nine essential amino acids, listed by the National Institutes of Health as the following: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Unlike other grains, quinoa is a particularly good source of lysine, according to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Quinoa and other whole grains also contain 25 percent more protein than refined grains.
Scientists are still working to understand all the implications of chronic inflammation on the body's health. The Mayo Clinic lists autoimmune disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease and Chrohn's disease as problems in which chronic inflammation plays a role. Less obvious disorders influenced by chronic inflammation may include cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Quinoa and other whole grains may help decrease the risk of this dangerous inflammation, according to Toups. They "help promote healthy gut microbes (the friendly bacteria in the gut), which is important for preventing obesity, inflammation and disease." World’s Healthiest Foods notes that quinoa is known to contain many anti-inflammatory nutrients, including phenolic acids, cell wall polysaccharides and vitamin E family nutrients such as gamma-tocopherol.
Medical News Today estimates that approximately 1.6 million follow a gluten-free diet without having been diagnosed with the disease. Because quinoa is naturally gluten-free, this nutritionally dense grain is the perfect pick for gluten-free diets. Most notable increases were protein (20.6 grams vs. 11 g) iron (18.4 milligrams vs. 1.4 mg, calcium (182 mg vs. 0 mg) and fiber (12.7 g vs. 5 g)."
Quinoa's good fiber content can aid in lowering cholesterol levels, according to Toups. Fiber aids in digestion, which requires bile acids, which are made partly with cholesterol. As your digestion improves, the liver pulls cholesterol from the blood to create more bile acid, thereby reducing the amount of LDL, the bad cholesterol. A study published in the journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition found that rats that had consumed a high level of fructose and were then fed a quinoa diet reduced their LDL cholesterol by 57 percent.
Lowering LDL cholesterol is good for your heart, but quinoa can benefit your ticker in other ways as well. Furthermore, quinoa can provide heart-healthy monounsaturated fat via its oleic acid content, as well as omega-3 fatty acids and alpha-linolenic acids, according to World's Healthiest Foods. Most foods lose their healthy fatty acids when oxidized, but quinoa's nutrients hold up to boiling, simmering and steaming.
One cup of cooked quinoa contains 21 percent of the recommended daily intake of fiber, which is great news for your gut. Quinoa is also more easily digestible than many other grains, according to World's Healthiest Foods. Furthermore, a study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that participants reported feeling fuller after eating quinoa, buckwheat or oats than after eating wheat or rice.
Diabetes and hypertension
"Quinoa has also been studied for its role in diabetes management and hypertension," said Toups. They found that quinoa was especially rich in an antioxidant called quercetin and that quinoa had the highest overall antioxidant activity (86 percent) of all 10 foods studied." She added that the study led researchers to conclude that quinoa, kañiwa (quinoa's cousin) and other traditional crops from the Peruvian Andes have potential in helping researchers to develop effective dietary strategies for managing Type 2 diabetes and associated hypertension.
According to some scientists, the fiber in quinoa could actually help people live longer. Two additional recent studies linked whole-grain consumption with longevity. One large-scale study published in BioMed Central found positive results when researchers looked at whole-grain consumption and death from chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and more. They noted the fiber as being particularly beneficial. Another study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that whole-grain consumption was associated with a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease in American men and women.
There are a few health risks associated with eating quinoa. Quinoa seeds are coated with saponins, which are chemicals designed to protect plants from diseases caused by fungi, bacteria and viruses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Saponins can have a bitter, soapy taste, so quinoa should be rinsed thoroughly in cold water before it is cooked. For some, saponins can do more than leave a bad taste in the mouth: They can cause stomach irritation and, according to the horticultural department at Purdue University, possibly damage the small intestine.
Quinoa in the diet
Quinoa cooks faster than most whole grains, taking only 12 to 15 minutes, according to Toups. This makes quinoa "an easy grain for busy families and individuals to add to their weekly rotation," she said. Furthermore, "Unlike some grains that tend to dry out when cooled, quinoa maintains a pleasant, chewy texture when served warm, chilled or at room temperature."
This all means that quinoa can be incorporated into your diet in a variety of ways, from being prepared as breakfast porridge to being an addition to salads or prepared like a pilaf. "Quinoa can also be used to thicken up soups or stews, and quinoa flour can be used in gluten-free baking," said Toups.