Quinoa Health Benefits You Need to Know
Quinoa is far more than a health-food buzzword. Known by the ancient Inca people as the “Mother of all Grains,” quinoa is recognized as an instant health-fix by some, and a standard part of a balanced diet by others. But, is it a fad or here to stay?
Well, quinoa’s approximately four-thousand-year history seems to have something to say about that. After almost tragically disappearing in the 16th century, quinoa has made a remarkable comeback. So, what’s so great about this tenacious crop?
What Is Quinoa?
Quinoa is a seed that comes from a plant native to the Andes Mountains in South America. Quinoa originated in Bolivia, Chile and Peru, and was grown and honored highly by the Incas. To this day, it’s an important food source for indigenous people in similar areas. Quinoa is surprisingly related to some more familiar grocery store favorites, such as beets, spinach and chard.
Quinoa could have vanished forever in the 1500s due to over-zealous explorers destroying fields of the crop, in a bid to destroy the local culture. However, the plant hung on and has, thankfully, survived into the modern-day.
Did you know? There are over 120 different varieties of quinoa, including red, white and black.
Is Quinoa a Grain?
How do we define quinoa? The quinoa plant is not technically classed as a grain or grass. It’s actually a type of plant known as a pseudo-cereal. However, for dietary purposes, it is classified as a whole grain, mainly because of the exceptional nutritional value and the fact that the whole seed is eaten without taking anything away.
With white rice and processed wheat, grains are hulled and transformed to make them more visually appealing, easier to cook and easier to turn into popular products such as white bread. However, this often removes some of the nutritional value of these types of grain. Quinoa retains its full nutritional index, making it an excellent alternative to rice and other grains.
Did you know? The U.N. considers quinoa a “super crop,” as it grows readily in poor soil with very little interference, and nearly the whole plant can be eaten.
Is Quinoa Healthy?
Quinoa is considered healthy for many reasons. Firstly, it’s a great source of protein, and not just because it’s relatively high in protein compared to other . The seeds contain every one of the nine essential amino acids that our bodies don’t produce on its own. This makes quinoa an excellent source of protein for vegetarians and vegans.
Although quinoa is fairly high in carbs, it also contains enough dietary fiber to reduce “net carbs,” a value which is often taken into account by people on the keto diet or Atkins plan. Quinoa wouldn’t fit into a zero-carb diet, but most diets are not this strict. Quinoa can be a very beneficial and nutrient-rich carb source, even for a low-carb diet.
Quinoa carbs have an advantage over other carb sources because quinoa is such a good source of other nutrients. Sometimes we worry about eating “empty carbs,” which are carbohydrates that offer no nutritional value other than the energy they provide. Check out our nutritional information below to see just how “full” these carbohydrates really are.
Quinoa Nutrition Facts
This quinoa nutrition table shows amounts per half cup, cooked:
- Calories: 111
- Carbohydrates: 20
- Fiber: 3
- Protein: 4
- Fat: 2
- Vitamin E: 0.6mg or 3% of the Daily Value Recommended
- Thiamin: 0.1mg or 6.5% DV
- Riboflavin: 0.1mg or 6% DV
- Niacin: 0.4mg or 2% DV
- Vitamin B6: 0.1mg or 5.5% DV
- Folate: 39mcg or 9.5% DV
When it comes to quinoa, calories aren’t an issue. There are just a few more calories in half a cup of cooked white rice, but the difference is relatively small. It’s more about the nutritional value that you’re getting for those calories. Quinoa provides energy while also providing many of the essential macro and micronutrients your body needs. It’s definitely worth the calories and a great source of energy for a busy lifestyle.
How to Cook Quinoa
- Quinoa needs rinsing before cooking. The outer hull is coated in saponin, which is a natural defense against insects. It’s quite bitter, so a good rinse ensures that bitter flavor doesn’t end up in your dinner.
- Place rinsed quinoa in a pan and add double the amount of water plus a quarter teaspoon of salt per cup of quinoa(salt may be left out if you choose).
- Bring to a boil, uncovered.
- Simmer for 15 minutes. The water should be absorbed and the “grains” light and fluffy. Fluff with a fork and serve.
Quinoa can be eaten just like this or jazzed up in any number of ways. Here are a few ideas to try:
- Stir a squeeze of fresh lime juice and some finely chopped chili into the quinoa for a zesty, spicy hit.
- Make a quinoa salad by combining it with avocado, tomatoes and your favorite dressing.
- Cook quinoa in broth instead of water for more flavor- just be aware of the extra salt content.
- Use quinoa with fruit as a morning alternative to oatmeal.
- Mix it into stews or casseroles for added texture and nutrients.
Superfood, Health Craze, Mother Grain – just what is it about quinoa that gets all these dramatic terms flying around? The simple fact is that quinoa is a well-packed, nutritional parcel, with a range of nutrients that aren’t typically found in a type of food that we primarily use as a grain or carb-rich side dish.
Here are just a few quinoa benefits that we’re excited about:
High Fiber and Protein Content
Four grams of protein per half-cup is a great ratio for anyone wanting to increase the amount of protein in their diet. Protein is essential for muscle growth and cell repair and is particularly important for anyone who exercises regularly or who is trying to tone up or build muscle bulk.
Quinoa can also help in diets that are designed to be high in protein, especially as the net carb content is relatively low.
The high fiber content makes quinoa excellent for digestion too. Some sources may state that quinoa has up to 13g of fiber per half-cup. This is correct for uncooked quinoa, however once boiled in water, the amount of fiber reduces greatly, to about 3g. Just over a third of the fiber in quinoa is soluble fiber, which may help contribute towards lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and can even help with weight loss.
Many grains are a problem for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. So, the question on many people’s lips is, “Is quinoa gluten-free?”
The key point to remember is that while quinoa looks, and to some extent feels, like a grain, it really isn’t. It’s a seed, and as such, completely gluten-free.
All Essential Amino Acids
As mentioned above, quinoa contains all nine amino acids, which are essential to our bodies. We do get these amino acids from other food, but plant-based foods that provide the whole range of essential amino acids (ones the body cannot produce) are rare. Amino acids are important because:
- They promote a healthy immune response.
- They aid with digestion.
- They are essential for protein formation.
- They help with enzyme production.
- They are required for tissue repair.
Meat-eaters can get complete protein from meat and seafood, and some vegetarians can find a good source by eating eggs and dairy. For strict vegetarians and vegans, quinoa can be an essential addition to their diet
Low Glycemic Index
The Glycemic Index, or GI, indicates the level at which a type of food might cause blood sugar to spike. Glucose has a rating of 100, the highest possible score. Foods under 55 GI are considered low on the Glycemic Index. Quinoa comes in at 53. This is because the energy in quinoa comes from complex carbs such as starch. These are digested slowly, meaning the resulting sugar hits your bloodstream at a gradual rate, rather than causing a spike.
This makes quinoa a great slow-release energy source, which will rarely cause a crash later in the day. For comparison, the GI rating for white rice is 89.
Rich in Antioxidants
Antioxidants in food are measured via the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity or ORAC score. It’s theorized that foods with a high ORAC score should be better at dealing with free radicals in the body. These are molecules that may cause damage to cells.
Quinoa has an ORAC score of 3200, about a third that of raw blueberries. For a food that we primarily use as a grain, that’s fantastic. Even brown rice only has an ORAC score of 330. It’s worth noting that the antioxidant values are given for the uncooked grains or seeds, so it’s unclear how cooking impacts their effectiveness.
Other Quinoa Health Benefits
High in protein, high in fiber, a great source of carbs and rich in antioxidants. What other health benefits could quinoa possibly have? As it turns out, quite a few:
- As a high source of folate, quinoa may promote eye health by helping to reduce the levels of a substance called homocysteine, which can cause exfoliation glaucoma (EG) and may lead to blindness.
- Folate is essential for pregnant women, as it supports healthy fetal growth.
- Folate may be a mood enhancer, as folate is involved with the neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine.
- Quinoa may help boost the immune system due to the complex and high levels of nutrients.
- The flavonoids in quinoa may have antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties.
- It is ideal for anyone with gluten-intolerance as quinoa is completely gluten-free. This also makes quinoa good for anyone who already has plenty of gluten in their diet and simply wants to balance it out a bit more with some gluten-free “grains.”
- Quinoa is high in minerals, such as iron, zinc, potassium and magnesium. These minerals become more bioavailable (more easily absorbed by the body) by soaking and slightly sprouting your quinoa before eating.
- Has a potentially positive impact on the metabolism by helping to negate the effects of sugars and preventing blood sugar spikes and regulating insulin levels
The Bottom Line
Quinoa is an “ancient grain,” which isn’t really a grain at all but is a highly nutritious seed. It’s easy to cook and incorporate into just about any type of diet. It’s an excellent replacement for rice and pasta and delicious mixed into salads and other dishes. Quinoa is high in protein, fiber, a nutritious source of carbs and offers many health benefits due to its high nutritional profile. It’s an ideal protein source for vegans due to containing all the essential building blocks of protein, which are so rarely found together in plant-based foods.