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 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.
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. Essential amino
acids are ones that the body cannot produce on its own, and complete proteins
contain all of them in roughly equal measure.
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.
Gluten-free diets are recommended for people
with Celiac disease, a severe gluten intolerance. Though the scientific
community is still debating the benefits of gluten-free diets for
people who do not have Celiac disease, plenty of Americans have jumped on the
bandwagon. Medical News Today estimates that approximately 1.6
million follow a gluten-free diet without having been diagnosed with the
People who follow gluten-free diets can have a hard
time getting all of their essential nutrients. The Mayo Clinic lists
iron, calcium, fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate as nutrients
especially lacking in gluten-free diets.
Because quinoa is naturally gluten-free, this
nutritionally dense grain is the perfect pick for gluten-free diets.
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. A study published in the Journal of Food Lipids noted
that quinoa seeds possess many of the dietary flavonoids "shown to
inversely correlate with mortality from heart disease."
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. Brazilian scientists researched 10 traditional Peruvian grains
and legumes for their potential in managing the early stages of Type 2 diabetes.
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. 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. A meta-analysis of relevant studies
published in the American Journal of Epidemiology concluded,
"high dietary fiber intake may reduce the risk of total
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
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. The high fiber content in quinoa may also result in upset
stomachs, according to Livestrong.com.
Quinoa cooks faster than most whole grains, taking
only 12 to 15 minutes. This makes quinoa an easy
grain for busy families and individuals to add to their weekly rotation. 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 a 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