Healthy Inca Grain? 9 Things you need to know about Quinoa

Photo: Colourbox.de/ 1307

…and all of a sudden everybody’s eating quinoa. It’s in full stock at the local natural foods store, the hip new base for veggie burgers and an organic protein substitute in numerous recipes. Utopia had a closer look and discovered a lot of quinoa’s benefits – but also some of its disadvantages.

In the Andes Mountains of South America, quinoa has remained a staple food within the region for approximately 6,000 years. In particular due to quinoa’s nutritional benefit and energy-rich properties, it was known to the Inca as “mother grain”. Spanish colonizers saw this “Inca wheat” as peasants’ food and outlawed its consumption. In contrast to corn, this crop was previously unknown to North America until up to around a couple decades ago.

Quinoa’s potential was rediscovered around the 1990s: Organic food stores and the alternative-cooking movement promoted the grain to its current status on account of quinoa’s nutritional benefits. The plant even made its way to “Plant of the Year” in 2013 and has since solidified its role as a gluten-free super food. The Incas had revered it as a wonder crop. Today, quinoa is an common substitute for rice, couscous and even oatmeal, the grain’s versatility has contributed to a growing abundance of new quinoa recipes in many different shapes and forms. The crop is also grown in the United States, at high elevation in states such as Colorado, but is limited to a short growing season.

1. What is Quinoa?

Quinoa is an ancient annual cultivated plant and belongs to the amaranth family. The sprouts and leaves are edible; however the plant’s seeds are more sought-after. You can cook them just like rice.

  • White quinoa is the most common type and is often cheaper. It’s quite lean and has a nutty flavor to it. Cooking time is around 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Black quinoa tastes similarly but is it a bit firmer in consistency. That is why you have to cook them a bit longer – around 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Red quinoa, like black quinoa, also needs longer to cook. This quinoa retains its shape and looks good on your plate. In recipes black quinoa goes particularly well in salads.
  • Puffed quinoa is a bit like the Inca’s popcorn. Like Quinoa flakes, you can find it in a range of natural ingredient cereals.

You’ll often find mixes consisting of two or three different colors. Unlike rye or wheat, quinoa doesn’t belong to the family of bison grasses and doesn’t contain gluten. The plant is therefore deemed a “pseudocereal” on the basis of its apparent similarity to grain.

Growing quinoa is rather undemanding: Seed in loose dirt patches free of weeds; dungs and watering are hardly necessary and can even reduce the harvest yield. Nowadays, the plant’s cultivation often leads to social and economic unrest in producing countries – see point 9: Sustainability.

Quinoa plants in peru
Plants in Peru at 12,500 ft. (Photo: Maurice Chédel (PD))

2. Nutritional Benefit: Is Quinoa Healthy?

The Inca worshipped quinoa as a miracle plant – and rightly so: The nutritional benefits of quinoa are vast an contribute to its growing popularity all over the country. Quinoa is an excellent source of essential amino acids such as lysin, tryptophan and cystine and provides an array of unsaturated fats. Quinoa is also rich in minerals including but not limited to magnesium (approx. 300 mg), iron (approx. 8 mg), potassium (approx. 800 mg) and calcium (approx. 120 mg), in addition to manganese.

This makes quinoa an interesting protein pick for vegans and has managed to stir up quite a bit of hype – similar to the protein-packed superfood edamame. Eating quinoa alone isn’t going to turn you into the lean-green healthy-eating machine. A balanced diet consisting of regional fruit, vegetables and grains serves is just as healthy as Inca wonder crops, whose procurement is often not very sustainable.

3. Carbohydrates: Benefits of Quinoa as a Low-carb pick?

Choosing quinoa as a grain alternative for a low-carb diet doesn’t make much sense. This pseudocereal is packed full of energy (containing up to 400 calories per 100 grams depending on the type). This energy is also delivered through fats (predominantly unsaturated), but primarily via carbohydrates.

Nonetheless, before the body can make use of these complex carbohydrates, they first need to be broken down. It is for this reason that you feel full for longer after eating quinoa. This is one of quinoa benefits, because it will help you avoid hunger flashes and snacking throughout the day. Those looking to avoid carbohydrates should look for another alternative.

4. Quinoa Benefits: Are the Ingredients Unhealthy?

As is with all foods, quinoa too possesses particular elements which can’t offer health benefits. In order for the plant to protect itself from natural threats, the grain shells are coated with bitter saponins. Those can be harmful to the intestines and blood cells if digested. Raw quinoa grains are not fit for consumption. Even after removal of the shell, quinoa should always be washed thoroughly and cooked to remove any remaining saponins.

People with gastro-intestinal diseases and children under two years of age should be particularly careful. In both cases, the body’s intestinal lining is not robust enough to handle saponins. The substance can make its way into the blood stream and begin to attack red blood cells. In the United States, commercially sold quinoa predominantly is sold processed and rinsed. However – especially if you’re buying from the bulk section of your supermarket –  it’s always a good idea to wash quinoa again, before you use it for cooking.

5. Gluten-free: A good Grain-alternative

Quinoa is a pseudocereal and not a grass, and therefore does not contain gluten. This makes quinoa a particularly worthwhile pick as a side dish alternative for those with celiac disease or other milder forms of gluten intolerance. However, when it comes to baking, quinoa is not the proper alternative: When baking, the protein complex gluten ensures that doughs for breads and cakes remain light and airy. Since the pseudocereal quinoa lacks gluten, this makes baking with quinoa a bit tricky. Nonetheless, you can still add a bit to replace a small portion of normal flower in order to lower the gluten content in your recipe.

You can also find gluten-free noodles made with the pseudocereal. But keep in mind: It does not make sense to eat quinoa under the pretense of “preventive dieting” – without an existing health-related need. You should only consider gluten-free grain alternatives if you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease, i.e. actual gluten intolerance. Gluten-free noodles often contain more cornmeal and rice flour than quinoa.

red quinoa
You need to boil red quinoa for about 20 minutes. (Photo: Pixabay/ CC0/ martinespecias)

6. Is Quinoa beneficial for a Diet?

Quinoa is healthy, contains loads of nutrients and is gluten-free. But it also contains loads of energy, apparently making it less than a suitable choice for a diet. Nevertheless, the calorie-nutrition ratio is notably higher than most grains.

On these grounds it is safe to say that you can easily integrate this Inca grain into a balanced diet. Quinoa provides a relatively large amount of nutrients in small portions and can therefore help to reduce overall calorie intake – another one of the appealing benefits of quinoa. However this shouldn’t take the place of a well-balanced diet. An even more sensible approach is to generally restructure your current nutritional habits – and this with regional products.

7. Buying Quinoa: What’s Important?

As an integral element of the superfood hype spreading across the country, quinoa is available pretty much everywhere – unfortunately only seldomly as a Fairtrade product. Even discount stores quite consistently have it in stock. The price range for this pseudocereal can vary from round $5 to $12 per pound for natural organic seeds. Puffed quinoa or quinoa flakes tend to be a bit more expensive due to the longer processing process.

USDA Organic Quinoa
Keep your eyes peeled for USDA Organic and Fair Trade certified seals when shopping. (Photo @ Utopia/Binford)

The easiest way to get your hands on quinoa is shopping at health food, natural and organic food stores, such as Whole Foods, Good Harvest or LifeSource.

No matter which kind your quinoa recipe calls for, pay attention to the processing methods detailed on the packaging and closely inspect it for organic or Fairtrade certification seals when shopping. Only this way can the farmers in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia justly benefit from the sales of their labor growing quinoa.

Here are some examples of products, whereby we always recommend products with the Fairtrade seal:

Keep in mind: Buying in-store saves time, money and the environment. If you’re going to order online, buy in bulk (in realistic quantities) and make it last!

Try to avoid a number of pointless products, whether natural organic or not:

  • Boil-in-bag packaging: Similar to rice you can also find quinoa in ready-for-the-pot plastic bags. This probably sounds like a major time-saver for some, but in reality it only results in an unnecessary waste of plastic.
  • Quinoa Snacks: The Inca grain quinoa is often advertised as a key ingredient in many snacks due to its blooming reputation as a superfood. Have a closer look at the product contents and you’ll notice that the total quinoa content in these light bites usually hovers around but a few percent.
  • Convenience products: It is not uncommon for processed quinoa-cereal mixes to contain palm oil. Try your hand at one of the countless quinoa breakfast recipes yourself.

8. Quinoa Recipes and Tips

Despite a wide range of quinoa serving methods, the most popular quinoa recipe is as a side dish prepared similar to rice.

  • Pour the seeds along with twice the amount of water into a pot and bring to a boil.
  • Following this, let the seeds simmer at low heat for around ten minutes. Now remove them from the stove and let soak for another 10 minutes.
  • Prior to serving, bring out the nutty flavor by adding a pinch of salt and butter or olive oil to the seeds.
Quinoa Salad
Be creative your quinoa recipes – salads work well with a range of ingredients such as lemon zest, beans, zucchini or mint. (Photo © Utopia/Anette Keiser)

Alternatively, quinoa goes quite well in fresh summer salads with avocado, mango and onion. For those South American spicy-food lovers out there, try your hand at chili con quinoa and replace meat with the seeds. Quinoa’s vast array of substitution and serving methods will have your creativity know no bounds.

9. Sustainability: Overshadowed of the Quinoa Boom

When it comes to sustainability, quinoa has a bad rap.

More than 95 percent of worldwide quinoa production takes place in Peru and Bolivia, the rest in Ecuador. The transport routes up from the fields or Peru or Bolivia are extremely long resulting in climate impact through fossil fuel emissions.

In short: When it comes to quinoa, the benefits don’t always outweigh the risks to the environment, local producers or overall farm-to-plate sustainability. Informed consumer decision making in purchasing (organic) non-local quinoa products and a sound balance in how often you make use of this lean protein substitute in your recipes decide who gets to benefit the most from this superfood boom.

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This text was translated from German into English by Evan Binford. You can view the original here.

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