A few short years ago, quinoa was almost unknown outside of its home in South America's Andes. Since the end of the 20th century quinoa's many agricultural and nutritional virtues have made it a hot food product, widely touted as a "superfood" for its health benefits. It can be cooked in a number of ways, and it can also be eaten raw if sprouted.
Like amaranth and corn, quinoa was a staple crop of the pre-Columbian period. When the Spanish conquered South America they adopted corn, but eradicated quinoa and amaranth because of their importance to the natives' religion. Quinoa was rediscovered in the 1970s and was quickly readopted in its homeland, where its trouble-free growth, drought resistance and nutrition were highly valued. Like amaranth and buckwheat, it's not a true grain, but a grainlike seed. It's a member of the same family as chard and beets, and the leaves are eaten as cooked greens in areas where it's grown.
Quinoa and Nutrition
Quinoa has been eagerly adopted by vegetarians and vegans because, almost alone among grainlike products, it contains all eight of the amino acids necessary for complete proteins. This means it doesn't need to be paired with beans, lentils or other legumes to provide complete nutrition. It's also useful to celiac disease sufferers and others with food allergies or sensitivities, because it can be substituted for other common grains such as bulgur wheat or rice in your favorite recipes. However, it's no more digestible than other grains and pseudo-grains when it's uncooked.
The human digestive system isn't suited to digesting grains or pseudo-grains when they're uncooked. Their carbohydrates pass through without being absorbed and, in fact, can cause gas pains. However, when grains are sprouted their own internal enzymes begin to convert those indigestible carbohydrates into sugars. That's why sprouted grains can be fermented into alcohol, and why humans can eat the sprouts without distress. However, sprouting quinoa isn't straightforward.
The first problem with sprouting is that the quinoa you find in your local health food store is already hulled. That means the seed coat has been removed, and if you attempt to sprout the hulled grain it will simply rot. Instead, you must find a source of un-hulled, untreated quinoa. Additionally, the germination rate for quinoa is relatively low, creating a risk you'll eat spoiled grain. This is why sprouting advocate, entrepreneur and author Steve Meyerowitz, aka "Sproutman," recommends eating it cooked instead. However, if you're prepared to separate unsprouted grains carefully, you can use the sprouted quinoa freely in salads, sandwiches and other meals.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- Whole Grains Council: Quinoa – March Grain of the Month
- Photo Credit Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images