Ancient Grain, New Trend

Quinoa: The Protein-Rich, Grain-Like Food You Should be Eating

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Quinoa is a protein-rich alternative to rice
Quinoa is a protein-rich alternative to rice (Image: Sheri L Giblin/FoodPix/Getty Images)

Quinoa—pronounced keen-wah—is not yet a staple in American diets as of 2011, but it is quickly moving beyond specialty health food stores and onto chain-supermarket shelves. Quinoa’s health benefits, palatability and versatility have increased demand for this protein-rich seed in the United States.

I think that the previous generation was very much into meat and potatoes, but we are now in a time of people loving alternatives to this. ... Quinoa is complete with an abundance of nutrition and can be used for any meal as a main course or as a side.

Noelle Martin, registered dietitian

Quinoa is often considered a grain, but it is actually a seed from a species of goosefoot plant, which belongs to the same family as beets and spinach. It was first cultivated throughout the Andes in South America thousands of years ago.

At one time, quinoa was known as the “Gold of the Incas” because Incan warriors believed it gave them strength. Legend says that warriors subsisted for days on “war balls,” which were balls of fat rolled in quinoa.

Although no longer the stuff of war balls, quinoa remains a superfood, providing nutrients that other whole grains lack.

Lisa Matsunaga, a California State University, Long Beach, graduate student who is preparing for a career as a certified dietitian, called quinoa a good addition to anyone's diet.

"Quinoa is one of the few vegetarian protein sources that contain all essential amino acids," Matsunaga said. "It’s a complete protein. Since quinoa is one of the few food sources that contain complete proteins, it's a great food for vegans and vegetarians."

Matsunaga added that quinoa is high in protein, fiber, potassium, vitamin E, iron and magnesium, among other vitamins and minerals.

Newfound Popularity

So if this wonder food is so good for you, why did it take so long to become popular in the United States?

Registered dietitian Noelle Martin says it all comes down to a generational change in eating habits.

"The previous generation was very much into meat and potatoes," says Martin, who is also a professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. "We are now in a time of people loving alternatives to this. More people are trying to enjoy more meatless meals and still get complete protein."

Demand for health foods such as quinoa increased significantly during the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. Quinoa was a rarity halfway through that 20-year stretch, but as of 2011 it is showing up in chain supermarkets and restaurants.

"For a long time, people weren't as concerned about getting whole grains into their diets," said Mara Betsch, assistant nutrition editor for Prevention.com. "Now that people are looking for those whole grains, importers are trying to bring in more options."

In a fast-paced society in which both parents in many families work outside the home, having something versatile that also cooks quickly has become critically important. Quinoa fits the bill because it is easy to prepare.

"I think that we live in a generation that loves simplistic newness," Martin said. Even though quinoa has been around for centuries, it is seen as new and it is simple. It's complete with an abundance of nutrition and can be used for any meal as a main course or as a side."

Quinoa comes in white, red and black varieties, but there are only a few minor differences among them. White, the most common, has the mildest flavor and strongly resembles couscous. Red quinoa is also quite common and has a stronger flavor, which many people describe as nutty. Black quinoa is less common and boasts a flavor similar to its red counterpart. According to Martin, all three provide the same vitamins and minerals and have additional similar nutritional values.

According to "SELF" magazine’s nutrition data calculator, 1 cup of any cooked quinoa will give you 222 calories and 4 grams of fat. That fat is unsaturated and is actually good for you. In addition, it also provides 5 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein. One cup of another healthy choice, brown rice, will give you about the same amount of calories, but more carbs and less protein and fiber.

The complete protein quinoa provides is particularly beneficial to people on strict and limited diets. Martin says she recommends it to vegans and people trying to follow a gluten-free diet.

"Quinoa is one of few whole grains that is gluten-free," she said, "(and for vegans) it is one of two non-animal based complete proteins." Soy is the only other non-animal food that provides the kind of protein found in quinoa.

Betsch said people with high cholesterol may help lower it with quinoa. She also recommends it for people with celiac disease who must eat gluten-free diets.

Quinoa's versatility is its other selling point. Adding quinoa to boiling milk can create a nice alternative to oatmeal or cream of wheat. You may mix it into salads for lunch, or use it as a side dish with salmon and vegetables for dinner. You may even prepare it as a dessert mixed with brown sugar, walnuts and dried fruit.

Betsch, a vegetarian, uses quinoa regularly in pasta salads and as a base for everything from sauteed vegetables to baked tempeh.

Many health food stores also sell quinoa flour, which may be used in gluten-free baking or as a high-protein alternative to traditional white flour.

Whether you’re a vegan, a vegetarian or a die-hard meat-lover, it is likely you could incorporate quinoa into your diet in a way that pleases your palate.

Grab some quinoa, find a recipe and start experimenting with this ancient and delicious superfood.

How to Cook Quinoa

Quinoa is most commonly prepared on a stovetop, but you may also prepare it in a rice cooker.
Quinoa is most commonly prepared on a stovetop, but you may also prepare it in a rice cooker.

If you've ever made rice, you already know how to make quinoa. In fact, it’s much easier to cook than rice and should take only 15 minutes from start to finish. Plus, quinoa doesn’t stick to the saucepan as readily as rice, so the cleanup should be painless.

While you may cook quinoa in a rice cooker, the most common method is on a stovetop. Here’s one method.

• Rinse 1 cup of quinoa in cold water using a strainer. You may also soak the quinoa in cold water for 15 minutes to an hour if you want to diminish the natural bitterness of the seed. For most people, however, a simple rinse will suffice. • Bring 2 cups of water to a rolling boil. You may use chicken or vegetable broth for more flavor. • Add rinsed quinoa to boiling water, then reduce the heat to medium and cover the pot. • In about 12 to 15 minutes, the water or broth should be absorbed and evaporated. You will be left with fluffy granules that resemble couscous, only smaller. • Stir the quinoa so there is no water sitting at the bottom. If water is still pooling, leave it on the heat for a few more minutes. • You should notice tiny white curls coming from the seeds. This is simply the germ of the seed breaking away from the outer shell. • Serve quinoa hot as a side dish or allow it to cool and toss it into a salad. Quinoa also keeps well when refrigerated, so make extra if you want to save time for future meals.

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