Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) and other ancient grains such as amaranth, barley, and farro are rapidly growing in popularity because of their wide array of health benefits.
Ancient grains are referred to as such because they have remained largely unchanged for hundreds or even thousands of years. Quinoa was known to the Incas as "the mother of all grains" and was first cultivated over 5,000 years ago.
Although there are hundreds of cultivated types of quinoa, the most common versions available in stores are white, red, and black quinoa.
This MNT Knowledge Center feature is part of a collection of articles on the health benefits of popular foods. We will cover the nutritional content of quinoa, along with its health benefits, and how it can easily be added to your diet.
Contents of this article:
Fast facts on quinoa
Here are some key points about quinoa. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Quinoa is thought to help stave off a number of health conditions
- Quinoa is relatively high in antioxidants compared with other grains
- Botanically, quinoa is not a true grain
- Quinoa has been cultivated for thousands of years
- It can be prepared in as a little as 15 minutes
- Quinoa has a naturally bitter coating called saponin that acts as an insecticide
- There are many ways in which quinoa can be included in your diet
Possible health benefits of consuming quinoa
Quinoa has a range of possible health benefits.
Consuming 2-3 servings of whole grain foods per day can reduce the risk of:
Many studies have shown that as whole grain intake increases, the risk for all five of these lifestyle-related conditions decreases.
It is recommended to consume 48 grams of whole grains per day.
Quinoa provides a higher amount of antioxidants than other common grains used in a gluten-free diet. Most gluten-free products consist of corn, rice, or potato flour and lack the nutrients that products incorporating quinoa can provide.
Researchers at Columbia University's Celiac Disease Center found that the nutritional content of gluten-free diets was significantly improved by adding oats or quinoa to meals and snacks e.g.: protein (20.6g vs. 11g), iron (18.4mg vs. 1.4mg), calcium (182mg vs. 0mg) and fiber (12.7g vs. 5g).
There are new studies emerging on a regular basis confirming the health benefits of adequate whole grain intake.
Nutritional profile of quinoa
Botanically, quinoa is not classified as a grain. It is a pseudo-cereal (a non-grassy plant used in much the same way as cereals and grains with a similar nutritional profile). The seeds of pseudo-cereals can be milled and ground into flour just as other grains and cereals.
However, nutritionally, quinoa is considered a whole grain. Whole grains include the entire intact grain seed without removing any of its parts. In contrast, when grains are milled or refined like white bread, white rice, and white pasta, they have been processed to create a finer, lighter texture. Unfortunately, most of the fiber and important nutrients are also removed during this process.
Whole grains like quinoa provide essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which help to regulate the digestive system and to keep you fuller and more satisfied. White pasta, white rice, and white bread essentially provide us with simple carbohydrates that are quickly digested but little else in the way of nutritional value.
Quinoa is naturally gluten-free and contains iron, B-vitamins, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, vitamin E, and fiber. It is one of only a few plant foods that are considered a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids.
Quinoa also has a high protein to carbohydrate ratio when compared to other grain products. It was proposed by NASA to be an ideal food for long duration space flights.
Additionally, quinoa contains a healthy dose of fatty acids:
"About 25 percent of quinoa's fatty acids come in the form of oleic acid, a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, and about 8 percent comes in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the omega-3 fatty acid most commonly found in plants."
Melinda Lund, M.S., R.D., a registered dietitian and medical nutrition therapist
One-fourth cup of dry quinoa contains 160 calories, 2.5 grams of fat (0 grams saturated and trans fat), 0 grams of cholesterol and sodium, 27 grams of carbohydrate (3 grams of fiber and 0 grams of sugar), and 6 grams of protein.
How to incorporate more quinoa into your diet
There are many ways in which quinoa can be added to your diet.
Quinoa has a naturally bitter coating called saponin that keeps insects away without having to use pesticides. Saponin is easily removed by rinsing quinoa with water before consuming.
Although most packaged quinoas have the saponin already removed, it is never a bad idea to give it an extra rinse.
It is easy to incorporate quinoa into your diet - just use it in place of rice in any recipe. Its small grains cook to tender in as little as 15 minutes.
Quinoa has a subtle nutty taste that makes it a versatile ingredient in the kitchen. It can be used in baking or as a breakfast grain; it also works well in hot side dishes, cold salads, and even in burgers.
Try these healthful and easy quinoa recipes:Maple Cranberry Breakfast Bars
Written by Megan Ware RDN LD