Quinoa (KEEN-wah) is the tiny seed of the Chenopodium quinoa, a plant related to spinach, chard, and beets. It is native to South America and was an important food source for the ancient Inca civilization.
Today, quinoa is grown in Canada and the U.S. as well as in South America. It's a popular alternative gluten-free "grain" because of its nutritional qualities.
A Complete Protein
Quinoa is higher in protein than most cereal grains. This means that quinoa contains all nine essential amino acids that we need for health. The proteins in quinoa, unlike some plant proteins, are considered to be highly digestible, similar to the digestibility of the proteins in milk.
Quinoa is a good plant source of essential fatty acids—omega 3 and omega 6—and also is a good source of vitamin E, an important antioxidant.
Quinoa is particularly high in manganese and also is a good source of magnesium, iron, and copper. Manganese and copper are necessary for the function of a powerful antioxidant called superoxide dismutase.
Lower in Carbs
1 cup of quinoa contains 109 grams of carbohydrates. In comparison, 1 cup of white rice contains 148 grams of carbohydrates and sorghum contains 143 grams. If you are trying to lower the carb content of your gluten-free diet, try substituting part of the rice or sorghum in recipes with quinoa.
Source: USDA Agriculture Research Service Nutrient Data Laboratory
Quinoa, like spinach, berries, nuts, beans, grains, chocolate, and black tea, is high in oxalates, a group of organic acids. A low-oxalate diet is prescribed for several health conditions including a tendency to form kidney stones. If you are on a low-oxalate diet, you should discuss the potential effects of adding quinoa to your diet with your physician.
Quinoa seeds contain a bitter-tasting substance called saponin which needs to be thoroughly rinsed off before cooking. The easiest way to rinse quinoa seeds is to place them in a mesh strainer and rinse under cool water until the foamy residue disappears.
How It Is Sold
Quinoa is sold in health food stores and some large mainstream grocery stores as a whole grain, flakes, flour, and in pasta products. Quinoa is available in a range of seed colors from orange, pink, and yellow to purple and black. Yellow to light, creamy-colored seeds and flours are the variety most commonly available in gluten-free products.
Some stores sell whole quinoa seeds in bulk bins. It's best not to purchase any gluten-free grains from bulk bins because of the risk of cross-contamination with gluten-containing grains.
Cooking With Quinoa
Not only do quinoa's healthful attributes make it a good gluten-free choice, but it's also a versatile grain that can be substituted for other grains in many recipes.
- Cook 1/2 cup whole, rinsed quinoa in 1 cup of water for about 15 minutes for a creamy, nutty-tasting high-protein breakfast cereal.
- Quinoa flakes can be used as a fast-cooking cereal and can be added to pancake and waffle recipes.
- Substitute whole cooked quinoa for rice in rice pilaf recipes and bulgur in tabbouleh recipes.
- Add quinoa flour to gluten-free flour mixes to improve the protein, mineral, and fiber content.
- Quinoa reduces the volume of yeast breads, so it is best used in small amounts in leavened bread recipes, although it works well in gluten-free recipes for cookies, muffins, pancakes, and pizza dough.
Source: Pseudocereals and Less Common Cereals—Grain Properties and Utilization Potential, Peter Belton, John Taylor, Springer, Berlin, 2002, pp. 93-118.