You may think, here we go again, quinoa, something we did not even know of only until a few years ago and still cannot pronounce it properly, is suddenly popping up everywhere. Whether it is in the healthy lifestyle books, blogs, restaurant menus and even on breakfast TV. But what makes it so special that it is considered to be a superfood and why is it good to include in our diet?
Botanically quinoa is not a true grain, rather a seed. It belongs among pseudo-cereals, meaning that even though it is not a cereal it is used and prepared like one and it has a similar nutritional content. As a matter of fact, it belongs to the same family as spinach and the leaves can be used in salads. For thousands of years, quinoa was a staple food of the Inca’s who called it “Chisaya Mama”, which translates to “Mother of all Grains”, also used as offerings to their gods. It has grown in the South American Andes since 3000BC and was recognized for its healing and nourishing properties by natives.
Interestingly quinoa as a food is also mentioned in Ebers Papyrus (famous medical papyri dating back 2000BC) as part of the prescription given to sick people to help them recover and gain strength after illness. As a way of undermining the Inca’s traditional practices and culture, during colonization, the Spaniards had tried to destroy quinoa completely. Thankfully small fields were preserved and in 1970, quinoa started to be cultivated once again on large scale.
This plant thrives in high, cold altitudes, can withstand very harsh conditions and tolerate dry soil. These days, most of the quinoa is grown in Bolivia and Peru. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations declared 2013 as an “International year of Quinoa” to acknowledge the ancestral practices of the Andean people, who have preserved quinoa for current and future generations. As well as to bring focus on the nutritional wonders quinoa possesses and its role in food security and the elimination of poverty.
The overall nutrient richness is quite amazing; when compared to other grains it is higher in all nutrients, including protein, fiber, minerals and vitamins. It has the highest protein content and is especially high in amino acids lysine and isoleucine. Considered to be a complete protein, it contains all 9 essential amino acids (amino acids we can’t produce in our body and must obtain through a balanced diet), therefore being an appropriate grain for vegetarians who struggle to achieve an adequate protein intake. It is an excellent source of calcium, contains decent amounts of Iron, Phosphorus (major minerals) and vitamin B groups as well as vitamin E (fat-soluble vitamins) as well as zinc and manganese (trace minerals – complete list).
Quinoa is also valuable source of essential fatty acids and fiber; the seeds have also quite a high amount of phytonutrient content, giving them decent antioxidant value. It is gluten-free, but if you do have gluten intolerance’s or you have been diagnosed with celiac disease you must always pay attention to the labels on the products as many manufacturers process quinoa on the same machinery as grains containing gluten.
Thanks to its nutritional versatility, quinoa was included among foods researched by NASA, that could be used by astronauts on long journeys into space. It is easily digestible and suitable as a great substitute for people with adverse reactions to certain grains. It is also suitable for children, vegetarians, athletes, convalescing people and breastfeeding mothers. From the Chinese medicine perspective quinoa makes our body stronger and specifically supports and tonifies the kidneys.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF QUINOA
Probably the most significant benefit that quinoa offers is the diverse and dense nutritional profile.
- it contains all essential amino acids, which makes it an ideal source of protein for people on plant based diets, among other things, protein is crucial for muscle build up
- a high amount of fiber, which is one of the most important nutrients in preventing type 2 diabetes as it stops blood sugar level spikes, fiber also relieves and prevents constipation and helps us to reduce cholesterol levels
- iron in quinoa can helps with oxygenation of body organs
- it is relatively high in phytonutrients, flavonoids (quercitin and kaemferol), these protect cells from free radical damage and together with anti inflammatory compounds also found in quinoa can decrease the risk of inflammation and cardiovascular disease
- it is quite high in the trace mineral manganese that is essential for many different processes in our body, plus, is an important component of the antioxidant “superoxide dismutase”, which fights free radical damage in our body
- provides a decent amount of magnesium, an essential trace mineral needed for many different processes in our body including energy metabolism, the cardiovascular system and nervous system function
- very rich in complex carbohydrates, that contributes to quinoa’s low GI and makes it perfect for people with diabetes and people on weight management programs; complex carbohydrates also play a role in regulating the blood sugar levels
- due to its low calorie amount and high protein content, it works as a natural appetite suppressant
- provides better satiety than any other grain, satisfying your appetite for longer and stops you from overeating
- high in B group vitamins, especially vitamin B2 (water-soluble vitamins – complete list), which has been studied mostly for its benefit in preventing and treating migraines by improving transport of oxygen into the cells
- reduces risk of allergy as quinoa is low irritant and is easy to digest
- aids in fast recovery (post exercise, illness etc.)
What can you buy in shops and how to prepare quinoa
These days quinoa is readily available from health food stores and some supermarkets as well. I always try to buy organic quinoa and make sure that it comes from Peru or Bolivia. There are three colors of quinoa available, most often you will see red and white, but there is also a black variety and a mix of all three colors that is referred to as an Inca mix. There are insignificant differences between their nutritional content, but when you cook it, you find that white clumps up more than red.
Red is harder and I prefer to use it for my breakfast, while I use white quinoa mostly for salads, as a rice substitute or add to my soups. It is great in a risotto or as a stuffing for tomato, onion, squash or zucchini. There is also quinoa flour and quinoa flakes; usually in baking you mix quinoa flour with some other type of flour, for example rice flour or garbanzo flour, if you are aiming for gluten free cooking.
How to cook quinoa
To cook quinoa is quite easy and fast. Make sure you always rinse it before you cook it as quinoa seeds are covered by saponins (naturally occurring plant chemicals, that protect the plants from insects), these “saponins” have a very bitter taste, by rinsing quinoa you will get rid of the bitterness and after cooking you will have a pleasant, nutty flavor. Many instructions for cooking suggest 4 parts of water to one part of quinoa, personally I didn’t like this as it makes the quinoa too soft and mushy.
After much experimentation, this is what works best for me:
For 3-4 servings you need about 150g of quinoa in 400ml of water, or if you go by cups use 1 cup of quinoa and 2 to 2.5 cups of water. Once the water starts boiling, reduce heat to medium and simmer for about 15-20 min.
Quinoa is pretty safe, but caution needs to be exercised in cases of low oxalate diets. Quinoa is quite high in oxalates, which are present in most vegetables, fruits and nuts. Higher content of oxalates are found in spinach, leeks, parsley, sweet potato, beetroot, rhubarb, almonds and cashews. Usually people who have had calcium oxalate stones ( kidney stones) should be following an oxalate restrictive diet and the amount of these foods in their diet needs to be considered. For more information learn from the guide to a Low Oxalate Diet PDF from litholink.com
Here are some yummy meals from quinoa.
QUINOA SALAD WITH BLACK OLIVES
150g of quinoa
400mL of water
100g of black olives (sliced)
250g of variety of veggies (bell pepper, zucchini, cucumber, shallots) all finely cut
small amount of goats or sheep cheese (optional)
6 Tbls of olive or avocado oil
2 Tbls of lemon juice
2 Tbls of apple cider vinegar
5 Tbls of herbs (option 1 mint and parsley, option 2 spring onion and basil)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- cook quinoa and leave it to cool down
- while waiting for quinoa to cool down, prepare dressing, so the oil can absorb taste and fragrance of the herbs
- cut all the veggies into small pieces, pick colours so it looks pretty
- mix all together with cooled down quinoa and add the cheese
100g of quinoa
1 big onion
1 carrot (cut into circles)
2 rosemary springs
5 Tbls of oil (olive or avocado)
1 can of tomatoes
1 tsp of sea salt
2 L of water
2 pieces of
2 celery stick cut into small pieces
4 cloves of garlic
- wash and dry quinoa
- put onion, garlic, rosemary and carrot into a pan with oil
- peel and prepare veggies then add to the pan
- add quinoa, stir continuously with the carrot and onion
- add salt, tomatoes, water, and bring to boil
- after 10 minutes add the celery and cook for another 10 minutes
- take away from the heat, add salt and pepper to taste
- if you wish you can add your preferred cheese, tastes really nice with Parmesan, goats or sheep’s cheese
Something for a sweet tooth
If you fancy something sweet you can prepare one of these satisfying quinoa breakfasts:
Mix cooked and cooled quinoa with nuts of your choice (we love pecans) and add some honey.
Option 2 (slightly more sophisticated)
Mix cooled quinoa with grated carrot or apple, shredded coconut, some sultanas (or fresh blueberries), lemon juice and honey or maple syrup.