By Taylor Jones
Quinoa is an ancient South American grain that was largely ignored for centuries.
Interestingly, it was only recently noticed by the rest of the world and hailed as a "superfood" due to its high nutritional content.
Quinoa is an ancient South American grain that was largely ignored for centuries.iStock
It is now considered a specialty food by foodies and the health conscious.
This article takes a look at what quinoa is, where it comes from and why it's so good for you.
What Is Quinoa?
Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is the seed of the Chenopodium quinoa plant.
Botanically speaking, it's not a grain. However, it's often called a "pseudograin" because it's similar in nutrients and eaten the same way as cereal grains (1).
Quinoa was first grown for food 7,000 years ago in the Andes. The Incas called it "the mother grain" and believed it was sacred (2).
Although it's now grown around the world, the majority is still produced in Bolivia and Peru. It was largely unknown to the rest of the world until very recently (1).
Since then, it has experienced a huge surge in popularity because of its high nutrient content and health benefits. It is also easy to grow in a range of conditions.
In fact, the year 2013 was named "The International Year of Quinoa" by the UN because of its valuable qualities and potential to fight world hunger.
Quinoa is also popular because it's a gluten-free grain. This means people with celiac disease, wheat allergies or those who avoid gluten can consume it.
Bottom Line: Quinoa is a seed classified as a pseudograin. Nutritionally, it is considered to be a whole grain and is also gluten-free.
Types of Quinoa
There are more than 3,000 varieties of quinoa (2).
However, the most widely grown types are red, black and white. There is also a tricolor variety, which is a mixture of all three.
This is what the three types look like:
Quinoa can also be rolled into flakes or ground into flour, which can then be used for cooking and baking.
White quinoa is the most commonly consumed variety and is what you'll usually find at the store. Interestingly, the different types also have varying nutrient contents.
Red and black quinoa also have nearly twice the vitamin E content of white quinoa.
The same study analyzed the antioxidant content of each type and found that the darker the color, the higher the antioxidant capacity.
Bottom Line: There are many types of quinoa, but red, black and white are the most popular. They vary in both color and nutrient composition.
Quinoa Is Loaded With Nutrients
This grain is also popular because it's very nutritious.
Just one cup (185 grams) of cooked quinoa is a great source of the following nutrients (4):
- Manganese: 58 percent of the RDI.
- Magnesium: 30 percent of the RDI.
- Phosphorous: 28 percent of the RDI.
- Folate: 19 percent of the RDI.
- Copper: 18 percent of the RDI.
- Iron: 15 percent of the RDI.
- Zinc: 13 percent of the RDI.
- Thiamin: 13 percent of the RDI.
- Riboflavin: 12 percent of the RDI.
- Vitamin B6: 11 percent of the RDI.
The same cup provides only 220 calories, in addition to 8 grams of protein, 4 grams of fat and at least 5 grams of fiber.
Adding quinoa to your diet is a great way to increase your daily intake of important vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Bottom Line: Quinoa is loaded with vitamins and minerals and contains more fiber and protein than most other grains.
Quinoa Contains Complete Proteins
Proteins are made of amino acids, which can either be made by your body or found in certain foods.
Nine of the amino acids are essential amino acids, meaning your body cannot produce them and you must get them from your diet.
Complete proteins contain all nine amino acids in significant amounts. While all animal sources of protein are complete, the majority of plant proteins are not. As a complete plant protein, quinoa is one of the exceptions.
This is one of its most unique qualities and makes it a very valuable source of protein, especially for someone whose diet is mostly plant-based.
While it's possible to get all of the essential amino acids from a plant-based diet, it does require eating a variety of plant-based proteins.
Quinoa is especially high in lysine, methionine and cysteine, which are some of the amino acids that plant foods are frequently low in (5).
Bottom Line: Quinoa is one of the few plant proteins that is a complete protein. This means it contains all of the essential amino acids you need.
It Contains Beneficial Plant Compounds
Quinoa is very high in beneficial plant compounds. Some examples are saponins, phenolic acids, flavonoids and betacyanins (6).
Many of these compounds may act as antioxidants, which means they can neutralize the free radicals that damage your body on the molecular level.
One study examined 10 types of grain from Peru. It found that quinoa had an antioxidant capacity of 86 percent, which was higher than all the other grains analyzed (7).
While all varieties of quinoa are high in antioxidants, the darkest seeds contain the highest amounts. This means black quinoa contains more antioxidants than white (3).
Also, sprouting the seeds can increase the antioxidant content even further (8).
However, a high antioxidant capacity in the lab does not necessarily translate to a higher antioxidant capacity in your body.
This shows that it really can help your body fight oxidative damage from free radicals.
Bottom Line: Quinoa contains beneficial plant compounds. Many of them act as antioxidants and protect your body from free radicals.
It May Improve Blood Sugar Control
Quinoa is considered to be a whole grain.
Several studies have linked whole grain intake to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and improved blood sugar control (10).
One large review found that consuming just 16 grams of fiber from whole grains per day was linked to a 33 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes (10).
However, there aren't many studies on the specific health effects of quinoa.
Nonetheless, one rat study found that it could reverse some negative effects of a high-fructose diet, including high blood sugar (11).
It also appears to contain compounds that inhibit alpha-glucosidase, one of the enzymes involved in digesting carbs. This could delay the breakdown of carbs, causing a slower release of glucose into the blood stream (13).
Quinoa's high fiber and protein content may also contribute to its positive effects on blood sugar. However, it is a grain and is still relatively high in carbs (7).
Bottom Line: Whole grains like quinoa appear to lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. Quinoa may also help with blood sugar control.
Other Health Benefits
May Improve Metabolic Health
Quinoa is a good choice for people who have high blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides).
One study found that eating 50 grams (1.7 oz) daily for 6 weeks lowered total cholesterol, triglycerides and LDL cholesterol (14).
However, the effects were small and it lowered the levels of the "good" HDL cholesterol too.
Another study compared quinoa and corn flakes. It found that only quinoa significantly reduced triglycerides, total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (9).
This is preliminary, but suggests quinoa could help improve metabolic health.
May Help Fight Inflammation
Although studies have not shown consistent results, a diet high in antioxidants is thought to help fight inflammation in the body (15).
Quinoa appears to be very high in antioxidants, yet may help fight inflammation in other ways as well.
Saponins are one of the plant compounds found in quinoa. They give it a bitter taste and some people rinse or soak quinoa to try and remove this taste (16).
However, saponins also seem to have some positive effects. In addition to acting as antioxidants, they appear to have anti-inflammatory effects.
One study found that saponins could inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory compounds by 25–90 percent in isolated cells (16).
Read this article for even more information about the health benefits of quinoa.
Bottom Line: Quinoa appears to help lower blood cholesterol and triglycerides. It may also reduce inflammation.
It Does Contain Some Antinutrients
However, quinoa is very well tolerated and antinutrients are not a big concern for healthy people with a well-balanced diet.
Saponins can have both positive and negative qualities.
On one hand, they have beneficial antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Some saponins have even been shown to help reduce blood cholesterol levels (5).
However, saponins also have a bitter taste and can prevent the absorption of certain minerals, such as zinc and iron.
Some varieties are lower in saponins than others. Rinsing, scrubbing with water or soaking can also help reduce their levels if desired.
While oxalate does not cause problems for most people, those who are prone to developing these types of kidney stones may want to avoid foods that are high in it.
Phytic acid is found in a range of foods, including nuts, seeds and grains (17).
It can also be both positive and negative. On one hand, phytic acid has antioxidant effects and can block kidney stone formation.
On the other hand, it can also block mineral absorption. This might raise the risk of deficiencies in an unbalanced diet.
Bottom Line: Like other grains and legumes, quinoa contains some antinutrients. However, they do not cause problems for most people.
How to Eat Quinoa
Quinoa is very versatile and easy to prepare. It has a nutty flavor and a chewy, fluffy texture. You can cook it just like rice, with two parts liquid to one part quinoa.
Simply bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer for about 15 minutes. Fluff and serve.
Try using broth instead of water or adding different seasonings for even more flavor.
Watch the video below for a demonstration of how to cook quinoa:
Quinoa can be used like any other grain. It can be served plain, as a side dish or incorporated into other recipes. Quinoa flour can also be used in baking.
Here's a list of some ways to enjoy quinoa:
- Mix with chopped vegetables, served warm or cold.
- Season and serve as a side dish.
- Cook into breakfast cereal with bananas or blueberries.
- Mix with veggies and stuff into bell peppers.
- Add to chili.
- Toss into a spinach or kale salad.
Take Home Message
Quinoa is a delicious whole grain packed with nutrients, fiber, protein and plant compounds. It has a unique flavor and is an easy way to add variety to your diet.
It's particularly great for vegans, vegetarians and people on a gluten-free diet.
However, its impressive nutrient profile and health benefits make quinoa an excellent addition to any diet.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Authority Nutrition.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Kris Gunnars
Quinoa is the world's most popular “superfood."
It is loaded with protein, fiber and minerals, but doesn't contain any gluten.
Quinoa is non-GMO, gluten gree and usually grown organically. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Here are 10 proven health benefits of quinoa.
1. Quinoa Is Incredibly Nutritious
Quinoa is a grain crop that is grown for its edible seeds. It is pronounced KEEN-wah.
It technically isn't a cereal grain, but a pseudo-cereal. In other words, it is basically a “seed" which is prepared and eaten similarly to a grain.
Quinoa was an important crop for the Inca Empire. They referred to it as the “mother of all grains" and believed it to be sacred. It has been consumed for thousands of years in South America, although it only became trendy and reached “superfood status" a few years ago.
These days, you can find Quinoa and products made with it all over the world, especially in health food stores and restaurants that emphasize natural foods.
There are three main types of quinoa: white, red and black.
This is what they look like:
Here is the nutrient breakdown for one cup of cooked quinoa, or 185 grams:
- Protein: 8 grams
- Fiber: 5 grams
- Manganese: 58 percent of the RDA
- Magnesium: 30 percent of the RDA
- Phosphorus: 28 percent of the RDA
- Folate: 19 percent of the RDA
- Copper: 18 percent of the RDA
- Iron: 15 percent of the RDA
- Zinc: 13 percent of the RDA
- Potassium: 9 percent of the RDA
- More than 10 percent of the RDA for Vitamins B1, B2 and B6
- Small amounts of Calcium, B3 (Niacin) and Vitamin E
This is coming with a total of 222 calories, with 39 grams of carbs and four grams of fat. It also contains a small amount of Omega-3 fatty acids.
Quinoa is non-GMO, gluten free and usually grown organically. Even though not technically a grain, it still counts as a “whole grain" food.
NASA scientists have been looking at it as a suitable crop to be grown in outer space, mostly based on its high nutrient content, ease of use and how easy it is to grow.
The year 2013 was actually called “The International Year of Quinoa" by the United Nations (UN), based on its high nutrient value and potential to contribute to food security worldwide.
Bottom Line: Quinoa is an edible seed that has become very trendy among health conscious people. It is loaded with many important nutrients.
2. Quinoa Contains Potent Bioactive Substances Called Quercetin and Kaempferol
The health effects of real foods go way beyond the vitamins and minerals we're all familiar with. There are thousands of trace nutrients in there, and some of them are extremely healthy.
This includes interesting molecules called flavonoids, which are plant antioxidants that have been shown to have all sorts of beneficial effects on health. Two flavonoids that have been particularly well studied are quercetin and kaempferol, and they happen to be found in large amounts in quinoa. In fact, the quercetin content of quinoa is even higher than typical high-quercetin foods like cranberries.
By including quinoa in your diet, you will significantly increase your total intake of these (and other) important nutrients.
Bottom Line: Quinoa contains large amounts of flavonoids, including quercetin and kaempferol. These are potent plant antioxidants with numerous health benefits.
3. It Is Very High in Fiber, Much Higher Than Most Grains
Another important benefit of quinoa is that it is high in fiber.
One study that looked at four varieties of quinoa found a range of between 10 and 16 grams of fiber, per every 100 grams of uncooked quinoa. This equals 17-27 grams per cup, which is very high, more than twice as high as most grains. Boiled quinoa contains much less fiber, gram for gram, because it absorbs so much water.
Unfortunately, most of the fiber is insoluble fiber, which doesn't appear to have the same health benefits as soluble fiber. That being said, the soluble fiber content is about 2.5 grams per cup (or 1.5 grams per 100 grams), which is still decent.
Bottom Line: Quinoa is much higher in fiber than most grains, with one source finding 17-27 grams of fiber per cup of uncooked quinoa.
4. Quinoa Is Gluten Free and Perfect for People With Gluten Intolerance
According to a 2013 survey, about a third of people in the U.S. are currently trying to minimize or avoid gluten. A gluten-free diet can be healthy, as long as it is based on foods that are naturally gluten free. The problems arise when people eat “gluten free" foods made with refined starches instead. These foods are no better than their gluten-containing counterparts, because gluten free junk food is still junk food.
Well, many researchers have been looking at quinoa as a suitable ingredient in a gluten-free diet, for people who don't want to give up staples like breads and pasta.
Studies have shown that by using quinoa instead of typical gluten-free ingredients like refined tapioca, potato, corn and rice flour, it can dramatically increase the nutrient and antioxidant value of the diet.
Bottom Line: Quinoa is naturally free of gluten and using it instead of typical gluten-free ingredients can increase the antioxidant and nutrient value of a gluten-free diet.
5. Quinoa Is Very High in Protein, With All The Essential Amino Acids That We Need
Protein is made out of amino acids. Some of them are termed “essential" because we can not produce them and need to get them from the diet.
If a food contains all the essential amino acids, it is seen as a “complete" protein. The problem is that many plant foods are deficient in certain essential amino acids, such as Lysine.
However, quinoa is an exception to this, being particularly high in in all the essential amino acids. For this reason, quinoa is an excellent source of protein. It has both more and better protein than most grains.
With eight grams of quality protein per cup of cooked quinoa (or 4.5 grams per 100 grams), quinoa is an excellent plant-based protein source for vegetarians and vegans.
Bottom Line: Quinoa is high in protein compared to most plant foods and contains all the essential amino acids that we need.
6. Quinoa Has a Low Glycemic Index
The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly foods raise blood sugar levels.
It is known that eating foods that are high on the glycemic index can stimulate hunger and contribute to obesity. Such foods have also been linked to many of the chronic, Western diseases that are so common today, like diabetes and heart disease.
Quinoa has a glycemic index of 53, which is considered low. However, it's important to keep in mind that quinoa is still pretty high in carbs, so it is not a good choice for a low-carb diet, at least not in large amounts.
Bottom Line: The glycemic index of quinoa is around 53, which is considered low. However, it is still relatively high in carbohydrates.
7. It Is High in Minerals That Most People Don't Get Enough of, Especially Magnesium
There are many nutrients in the modern diet that people tend to be lacking in. This is particularly true of some minerals, especially magnesium, potassium, zinc and (for women) iron.
Interestingly, quinoa is very high in all four minerals. It is particularly high in magnesium, with one cup having about 30 percent of the RDA.
The problem is that quinoa contains a substance called phytic acid, which can bind these minerals and reduce their absorption. However, by soaking and/or sprouting the quinoa before cooking it, you can reduce the phytic acid content and make these minerals more bioavailable.
Bottom Line: Quinoa is very high in minerals, but the phytic acid can partly prevent them from being absorbed. Soaking or sprouting quinoa degrades most of the phytic acid.
8. Quinoa May Have Some Major Benefits for Metabolic Health
Given the high amount of beneficial nutrients, it makes sense that quinoa could lead to improvements in metabolic health.
Although this needs to be studied more thoroughly, I did find two studies (one in humans, the other in rats) that examined the effects of quinoa on metabolic health. The human study found that using quinoa instead of typical gluten-free breads and pastas significantly reduced blood sugar, insulin and triglyceride levels. The rat study found that adding quinoa to a diet high in fructose almost completely inhibited the negative effects of fructose.
Bottom Line: Two studies, one in humans and the other in rats, show that quinoa can improve metabolic health. This includes lower blood sugar and triglyceride levels.
9. Quinoa Is Loaded With Antioxidants
Quinoa also happens to be very high in antioxidants. Antioxidants are substances that neutralize free radicals and are believed to help fight aging and many diseases.
One study looked at antioxidants in 10 foods: five cereals, three pseudocereals and two legumes. Quinoa had the highest antioxidant content of all 10.
Bottom Line: Quinoa appears to be very high in antioxidants, which are increased even further after the seeds are sprouted.
10. Quinoa Has Several Important Characteristics That Make It a Weight Loss Friendly Food
In order to lose weight, we need to take in fewer calories than we burn. It is known that certain properties of foods can facilitate this process, either by boosting metabolism (increasing calories out) or reducing appetite (lowering calories in). Interestingly, quinoa has several such properties.
It is high in protein, which can both increase metabolism and reduce appetite significantly.
The fact that quinoa has a low glycemic index is another important feature, but choosing such foods has been linked to reduced calorie intake.
Although there is currently no study that looks at the effects of quinoa on body weight, it seems intuitive that it could be a useful part of a healthy weight loss diet.
Bottom Line: Quinoa is high in fiber, protein and has a low glycemic index. These properties have all been linked to weight loss and improved health.
11. Quinoa Is Easy to Incorporate Into Your Diet
The last point is not a health benefit, but still incredibly important. It is the fact that quinoa is very easy to incorporate into your diet. It is also tasty and goes well with many foods.
Depending on the type of quinoa, it can be important to rinse it with water in order to get rid of saponins, which are found on the outer layer and can have a bitter flavor. However, some brands have already been rinsed, so this may not be necessary.
You can buy quinoa in most health food stores and many supermarkets. It is also available on Amazon, with many reviews, testimonials and usage tips from real customers.
Quinoa can be ready to eat in as little as 15-20 minutes:
- Put 2 cups of water in a pot, turn up the heat.
- Add 1 cup of raw quinoa, with a dash of salt.
- Boil for 15-20 minutes.
It should now have absorbed most of the water and gotten a fluffy look. If done right, it should have a mild, nutty flavour and a satisfying crunch.
Then there are dozens of other delicious ways to use quinoa.
This article was reposted with permission from our media associate Authority Nutrition.
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