Perhaps the most striking health benefit provided by quinoa is its overall nutrient richness. When the nutrient composition of this food is analyzed in depth, the results are unusual and striking. While quinoa can be eaten in the same way as a grain, or ground into flour like is so commonly done with grains, it lacks some important nutritional shortcomings of grains.
One of the shortcomings overcome by quinoa involves its protein content. Most grains are considered to be inadequate as total protein sources because they lack adequate amounts of the amino acids lysine and isoleucine. The relatively low level of both lysine and isoleucine in the protein of grains is what causes these amino acids to be considered as the limiting amino acids (LAAs) in grains. In other words, these LAAs prevent grains from serving as complete protein sources in our diet. By contrast, quinoa has significantly greater amounts of both lysine and isoleucine (especially lysine), and these greater amounts of lysine and isoleucine allow the protein in quinoa to serve as a complete protein source.
In terms of fat content, quinoa once again overcomes some of the shortcomings of most grains. Since it takes nearly 350 calories' worth of whole wheat to provide 1 gram of fat, whole wheat is not generally regarded as a significant source of fat, including essential fatty acids or heart-healthy monounsaturated fats (like oleic acid). By contrast, since it only takes 63 calories' worth of quinoa to provide 1 gram of fat, quinoa is typically considered to be a valuable source of certain health-supportive fats. About 28% of quinoa's fatty acids come in the form of oleic acid, a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, and about 5% come in the form of alpha-linolenic acid or ALA—the omega-3 fatty acid most commonly found in plants and associated with decreased risk of inflammation-related disease.
Neither quinoa nor any grains qualify as good vitamin E sources in our WHFoods rating system. However, in the case of quinoa, or rating system does not do full justice to the fact that quinoa contains significant amounts of certain tocopherols (vitamin E family members) largely absent from most grains. For example, one cup of quinoa provides 2.2 milligrams of gamma-tocopherol—a form of vitamin E that has been more closely associated with certain anti-inflammatory benefits in health research. Quinoa is also a good source of RDA nutrients like folate, zinc, and phosphorus in contrast to whole wheat, which does not qualify as a good source in our rating system.
Quinoa is an equally impressive food in terms of its overall phytonutrient benefits. In many Central and South American countries, the leaves of the quinoa plant are valued for their betacyanin pigments, which provide some of their bright reddish shades. But even the seeds themselves can be phytonutrient-rich and can provide significant amounts of antioxidants like ferulic, coumaric, hydroxybenzoic, and vanillic acid.
The antioxidant flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol are also especially plentiful in quinoa. In fact, the concentration of these two flavonoids in quinoa can sometimes be greater than their concentration of high-flavonoid berries like cranberry or lingonberry.
Considered in combination, these diverse nutrient benefits of quinoa give it uniqueness among grain-related foods. For us, this high overall level of nourishment provided by quinoa may qualify as its greatest health benefit.
Most of the quinoa studies that we've seen in this area have been animal studies. However, we believe that the preliminary indications for humans are very promising. Research has shown the ability of daily quinoa intake to lower levels of inflammation in fat (adipose) tissue in rats and in the linings of their intestine as well.
We're not surprised at either of these results because a wide range of anti-inflammatory nutrients is already known to be present in quinoa. This list of anti-inflammatory nutrients includes phenolic acids (including hydroxycinnamic and hydroxybenzoic acids), members of the vitamin E family like gamma-tocopherol, and cell wall polysaccharides like arabinans and rhamnogalacturonans.
Somewhat more controversial in this anti-inflammatory nutrient list are the saponins found in quinoa. Saponins are the bitter tasting, water-soluble phytonutrients found in the outer seed coat layer of quinoa. (More specifically, the saponins found in quinoa are derived from hederagenin, oleanic acid, phytolaccagenic acid, and serjanic acid.) The quinoa saponins have been shown to have both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. However, soaking, boiling, and milling can reduce their presence, and, in general, this reduced presence is usually regarded as a good thing since it can make the quinoa much more enjoyable for most people to eat. In research to date, the relationship between and anti-inflammatory benefits of quinoa and saponin levels has yet to be clarified. However, even though more research is needed in this particular phytonutrient area, the list of anti-inflammatory nutrients in quinoa remains impressive.
We have yet to see large-scale human studies on intake of quinoa and risk of type 2 diabetes or risk of cardiovascular disease. However, we would expect such studies to show significantly reduced risks. With respect to type 2 diabetes, quinoa simply has too many things in common with other foods known to decrease risk. At the top of the list here would be its fiber and protein content. Quinoa is a good source of fiber—one of the key macronutrients needed for health blood sugar regulation. It also provides outstanding protein quality, even in comparison to commonly-eaten whole grains. Strong intake of protein and fiber are two dietary essentials for regulation of blood sugar. Because chronic, unwanted inflammation is also a key risk factor for development of type 2 diabetes, the diverse range of anti-inflammatory nutrients found in quinoa also make it a great candidate for diabetes risk reduction.
Animal studies have already demonstrated the ability of quinoa to lower total cholesterol and help maintain levels of HDL cholesterol (the "good" cholesterol). While we would expect these results in humans as well, we would also expect the anti-inflammatory nutrients in quinoa to help protect human blood vessels from inflammatory damage. Protection of this kind would also provide reduced risk of many cardiovascular diseases, including atherosclerosis. We expect to see future, large-scale human studies demonstrating the benefits of quinoa for risk reduction in this area of cardiovascular disease.
The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients in quinoa also make it a likely candidate for cancer risk reduction in humans. Given the preliminary animal results involving the digestive tract, risk reduction for colon cancer may turn out to be a special area of interest.
A final area of likely benefit involves decreased risk of allergy—especially for individuals who have adverse reactions to certain grains and seek practical alternatives. Already, several public organizations have recommended quinoa as a substitute for wheat whenever the avoidance of this gluten-containing grain is required. The low-allergy potential of quinoa—coupled with its relatively high digestibility—has also made it a food of special interest in the diet of children and toddlers.
Because quinoa is typically consumed in the same way as the cereal grasses (wheat, oats, barley, and rye), we group it together with those foods on our website. However, quinoa is not a cereal grass at all, but rather a member of the same food family that contains spinach, Swiss chard, and beets. Many researchers refer to quinoa as a "pseudocereal." This term is typically used to describe foods that are not grasses but can still be easily ground into flour. The scientific name for quinoa is Chenopodium quinoa.
Researchers date the popularity of quinoa to approximately 3000 BC, when its consumption became widespread in the Andes mountains regions of South America. About 250 different varieties of quinoa were already present at that time, giving quinoa a remarkable tolerance for different growing conditions. Quinoa is able to survive high altitudes, thin and cold air, hot sun, salty or sandy soil, little rainfall, and sub-freezing temperatures. In addition, all parts of the plant could be eaten, including not only the seeds that we buy in the store and that may also have been dried and ground into flour, but also the leaves and stems. Betacyanin pigments presemt in some quinoa leaves given them their bright reddish color, but it's also possible to find orange, pink, purple, tan, and black quinoa as well. Quinoa leaves taste similar in flavor to the leaves of their fellow chenopods, namely, spinach, chard, and beets. Cooked quinoa seeds are fluffy and creamy, yet also slightly crunchy. They may also sometimes have an amazing translucent appearance. The flavor of the cooked seeds is delicate and somewhat nutty.
The word "quinoa" is pronounced "KEEN-wah." It comes from the Spanish word, quinua, which itself comes from the word "kinwa" or "kinua" in the Quechua dialect.
The history of quinoa is clearly rooted in South America, in the Andes region that is currently divided up between the countries of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Along with maize, quinoa was one of the two mainstay foods for the Inca Empire that had its start around 1200 AD. As previously mentioned in the Description section, quinoa was a food that could survive in a wide variety of growing conditions. Along with its unusual nutrient richness, its adaptability helped it gain popularity among the Incas for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Most quinoa consumed in the United States still comes from South America. Peru remains the largest commercial producer of quinoa, harvesting 41,079 metric tons in 2010. Bolivia was the second largest producer with 29,500 metric tons. Together, these two South American countries produced nearly 99% of all commercially grown quinoa in 2010. In terms of export sales, quinoa has risen to the level of an $87 million dollar business in these two countries.
Some commercial quinoa production takes place in the United States, although total cultivation remains under 10,000 pounds. The Colorado Rockies have been a place of special interest for quinoa production, and some production has also occurred in the states of California, Washington, and Oregon.
Interest in quinoa has recently spread to India (including the North-India Plains and high-altitude areas of the Himalayas), other parts of Asia (including Japan), as well as to Africa and part of Europe. Designation of the year 2013 as "The International Year of the Quinoa" by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) may also trigger greater attention to this food worldwide.
Quinoa is generally available in prepackaged containers as well as bulk bins. Just as with any other food that you may purchase in the bulk section, make sure that the bins containing the quinoa are covered and that the store has a good product turnover so as to ensure its maximal freshness. Whether purchasing quinoa in bulk or in a packaged container, make sure that there is no evidence of moisture. When deciding upon the amount to purchase, remember that quinoa expands during the cooking process to several times its original size. If you cannot find it in your local supermarket, look for it at natural foods stores, which usually carry it.
The most common type of quinoa you will find in the store has an off-white color but red and black quinoa are becoming more available. You may even be able to find a tri-color mixture sold in packages or bulk bins.
Store quinoa in an airtight container. It will keep for a longer period of time, approximately three to six months, if stored in the refrigerator.
For some of our favorite recipes, click Recipes.
Quinoa is not a commonly allergenic food. Because quinoa does not belong to the plant family containing wheat, oats, barley, and rye, it is also a gluten-free food. Some studies also show a higher-than-expected digestibility for quinoa, making it a food less likely to produce adverse reactions.
|manganese||1.17 mg||59||4.7||very good|
Density>=7.6 AND DRI/DV>=10%
Density>=3.4 AND DRI/DV>=5%
Density>=1.5 AND DRI/DV>=2.5%