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Quinoa

Although not a common item in most kitchens today, quinoa is an amino acid-rich (protein) seed that has a fluffy, creamy, slightly crunchy texture and a somewhat nutty flavor when cooked. Quinoa is available in your local health food stores throughout the year.

Most commonly considered a grain, quinoa is actually a relative of leafy green vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard. It is a recently rediscovered ancient "grain" once considered “the gold of the Aztecs”.


Health Benefits

A recently rediscovered ancient "grain" native to Central America, quinoa was once called "the gold of the Incas," who recognized its value in increasing the stamina of their warriors. Not only is quinoa high in protein, but the protein it supplies is complete protein, meaning that it includes all nine essential amino acids. Not only is quinoa's amino acid profile well balanced, making it a good choice for vegans concerned about adequate protein intake, but quinoa is especially well-endowed with the amino acid lysine, which is essential for tissue growth and repair. In addition to protein, quinoa features a host of other health-building nutrients. Because quinoa is a very good source of manganese as well as a good source of magnesium, iron, copper and phosphorous, this "grain" may be especially valuable for persons with migraine headaches, diabetes and atherosclerosis.

Help for Migraine Headaches

If you are prone to migraines, try adding quinoa to your diet. Quinoa is a good source of magnesium, a mineral that helps relax blood vessles, preventing the constriction and rebound dilation characteristic of migraines. Increased intake of magnesium has been shown to be related to a reduced frequency of headache episodes reported by migraine sufferers. Quinoa is also a good source of riboflavin, which is necessary for proper energy production within cells. Riboflavin (also called vitamin B2) has been shown to help reduce the frequency of attacks in migraine sufferers, most likely by improving the energy metabolism within their brain and muscle cells.

Cardiovascular Health

Quinoa is a very good source of magnesium, the mineral that relaxes blood vessels. Since low dietary levels of magnesium are associated with increased rates of hypertension, ischemic heart disease and heart arrhythmias, this ancient grain can offer yet another way to provide cardiovascular health for those concerned about atherosclerosis.

Antioxidant Protection

Quinoa is a very good source of manganese and a good source of copper, two minerals that serve as cofactors for the superoxide dismutase enzyme. Superoxide dismutase is an antioxidant that helps to protect the mitochondria from oxidative damage created during energy production as well as guard other cells, such as red blood cells, from injury caused by free radicals.

Gallstone Prevention

Eating foods high in insoluble fiber, such as quinoa, can help women avoid gallstones, shows a study published in the July 2004 issue of the American Journal of Gastroenterology.

Studying the overall fiber intake and types of fiber consumed over a 16 year period by 69,778 women in the Nurses Health Study, researchers found that those consuming the most fiber overall (both soluble and insoluble) had a 13% lower risk of developing gallstones compared to women consuming the fewest fiber-rich foods.

Those eating the most foods rich in insoluble fiber gained even more protection against gallstones: a 17% lower risk compared to women eating the least. And the protection was dose-related; a 5-gram increase in insoluble fiber intake dropped risk dropped 10%.

How do foods rich in insoluble fiber help prevent gallstones? Researchers think insoluble fiber not only speeds intestinal transit time (how quickly food moves through the intestines), but reduces the secretion of bile acids (excessive amounts contribute to gallstone formation), increases insulin sensitivity and lowers triglycerides (blood fats). Abundant in all whole grains, insoluble fiber is also found in nuts and the edible skin of fruits and vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, many squash, apples, berries, and pears. In addition, beans provide insoluble as well as soluble fiber.(October 11, 2004)

Anti-Cancer Activity Equal to or Even Higher than that of Vegetables and Fruits

Research reported at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) International Conference on Food, Nutrition and Cancer, by Rui Hai Liu, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues at Cornell University shows that whole grains, such as quinoa, contain many powerful phytonutrients whose activity has gone unrecognized because research methods have overlooked them.

Despite the fact that for years researchers have been measuring the antioxidant power of a wide array of phytochemicals, they have typically measured only the "free" forms of these substances, which dissolve quickly and are immediately absorbed into the bloodstream. They have not looked at the "bound" forms, which are attached to the walls of plant cells and must be released by intestinal bacteria during digestion before they can be absorbed.

Phenolics, powerful antioxidants that work in multiple ways to prevent disease, are one major class of phytochemicals that have been widely studied. Included in this broad category are such compounds as quercetin, curcumin, ellagic acid, catechins, and many others that appear frequently in the health news.

When Dr. Liu and his colleagues measured the relative amounts of phenolics, and whether they were present in bound or free form, in common fruits and vegetables like apples, red grapes, broccoli and spinach, they found that phenolics in the “free” form averaged 76% of the total number of phenolics in these foods. In whole grains, however, "free" phenolics accounted for less than 1% of the total, while the remaining 99% were in "bound" form.

In his presentation, Dr. Liu explained that because researchers have examined whole grains with the same process used to measure antioxidants in vegetables and fruits—looking for their content of "free" phenolics"—the amount and activity of antioxidants in whole grains has been vastly underestimated.

Despite the differences in fruits', vegetables' and whole grains' content of "free" and "bound" phenolics, the total antioxidant activity in all three types of whole foods is similar, according to Dr. Liu's research. His team measured the antioxidant activity of various foods, assigning each a rating based on a formula (micromoles of vitamin C equivalent per gram). Broccoli and spinach measured 80 and 81, respectively; apple and banana measured 98 and 65; and of the whole grains tested, corn measured 181, whole wheat 77, oats 75, and brown rice 56.

Dr. Liu's findings may help explain why studies have shown that populations eating diets high in fiber-rich whole grains consistently have lower risk for colon cancer, yet short-term clinical trials that have focused on fiber alone in lowering colon cancer risk, often to the point of giving subjects isolated fiber supplements, yield inconsistent results. The explanation is most likely that these studies have not taken into account the interactive effects of all the nutrients in whole grains—not just their fiber, but also their many phytonutrients. As far as whole grains are concerned, Dr. Liu believes that the key to their powerful cancer-fighting potential is precisely their wholeness. A grain of whole wheat consists of three parts—its endosperm (starch), bran and germ. When wheat—or any whole grain—is refined, its bran and germ are removed. Although these two parts make up only 15-17% of the grain's weight, they contain 83% of its phenolics. Dr. Liu says his recent findings on the antioxidant content of whole grains reinforce the message that a variety of foods should be eaten good health. “Different plant foods have different phytochemicals,” he said. “These substances go to different organs, tissues and cells, where they perform different functions. What your body needs to ward off disease is this synergistic effect – this teamwork – that is produced by eating a wide variety of plant foods, including whole grains.” (January 14, 2005)

Lignans Protect against Cancers and Heart Disease

One type of phytochemical especially abundant in whole grains such as quinoa are plant lignans, which are converted by friendly flora in our intestines into mammalian lignans, including one called enterolactone that is thought to protect against breast and other hormone-dependent cancers as well as heart disease. In addition to whole grains, nuts, seeds and berries are rich sources of plant lignans, and vegetables, fruits, and beverages such as coffee, tea and wine also contain some. When blood levels of enterolactone were measured in 857 postmenopausal women in a Danish study published in the October 2004 issue of the Journal of Nutrition, women eating the most whole grains were found to have significantly higher blood levels of this protective lignan. Women who ate more cabbage and leafy vegetables also had higher enterolactone levels. (January 14, 2005)

Description

We usually think of quinoa as a grain, but it is actually the seed of a plant that, as its scientific name Chenopodium quinoa reflects, is related to beets, chard and spinach. These amino acid-rich seeds are not only very nutritious, but also very delicious. Cooked quinoa seeds are fluffy and creamy, yet slightly crunchy. They have a delicate, somewhat nutty flavor. While the most popular type of quinoa is a transparent yellow color, other varieties feature colors such as orange, pink, red, purple or black. Although often difficult to find in the marketplace, the leaves of the quinoa plant are edible, with a taste similar to its green-leafed relatives, spinach, chard and beets.

History

While relatively new to the United States, quinoa has been cultivated in the Andean mountain regions of Peru, Chile and Bolivia for over 5,000 years, and it has long been a staple food in the diets of the native Indians. The Incas considered it a sacred food and referred to it as the “mother seed”.

In their attempts to destroy and control the South American Indians and their culture, the Spanish conquerors destroyed the fields in which quinoa was grown. They made it illegal for the Indians to grow quinoa, with punishment including sentencing the offenders to death. With these harsh measures, the cultivation of quinoa was all but extinguished.

Yet, this super food would not be extinguished forever. In the 1980s, two Americans, discovering the concentrated nutrition potential of quinoa, began cultivating it in Colorado. Since then, quinoa has become more and more available as people realize that it is an exceptionally beneficial food.

How to Select and Store

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 this super grain.

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.

How to Enjoy

For some of our favorite recipes, click Recipes.

Tips for Preparing Quinoa:

Tips for Preparing Quinoa:

While the processing methods used in the commercial cultivation remove much of the soapy saponin that coats quinoa seeds, it is still a good idea to thoroughly wash the seeds to remove any remaining saponin residue. An effective method is to run cold water over quinoa that has been placed in a fine-meshed strainer, gently rubbing the seeds together with your hands. To ensure that the saponin has been completely removed, taste a few seeds. If they still have a bitter taste, continue the rinsing process.

To cook the quinoa, add one part of the grain to two parts liquid in a saucepan. After the mixture is brought to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer and cover. One cup of quinoa cooked in this method usually takes fifteen minutes to prepare. When cooking is complete, you will notice that the grains have become translucent, and the white germ has partially detached itself, appearing like a white-spiraled tail. If you desire the quinoa to have a nuttier flavor, you can dry roast it for five minutes in a skillet, stirring constantly before cooking.

Since quinoa has a low gluten content, it is one of the least allergenic "grains," but its flour needs to be combined with wheat to make leavened baked goods. Quinoa flour can be used to make pasta, and quinoa pastas are available in the marketplace.

A Few Quick Serving Ideas:

Combine cooked chilled quinoa with pinto beans, pumpkin seeds, scallions and coriander. Season to taste and enjoy this south-of-the border inspired salad.

Add nuts and fruits to cooked quinoa and serve as a breakfast porridge.

For a twist on your favorite pasta recipe, use noodles made from quinoa.

Sprouted quinoa can be used in salads and sandwiches just like alfalfa sprouts.

Add quinoa to your favorite vegetable soups.

Ground quinoa flour can be added to cookie or muffin recipes.

Safety

This food is not a commonly allergenic food, is not included in the list of 20 foods that most frequently contain pesticide residues, and is also not known to contain goitrogens, oxalates, or purines.

Nutritional Profile

Introduction to Food Rating System Chart

The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good or good source. Next to the nutrient name you will find the following information: the amount of the nutrient that is included in the noted serving of this food; the %Daily Value (DV) that amount represents; the nutrient density rating; and, the food's World's Healthiest Foods Rating. Not all of our Daily Value standards are obtained from the FDA. In most instances, we used FDA Daily Values when available because they are widely recognized and apply to both men and women. However, when unavailable, we've used other science-based research to establish nutritional standards. Underneath the chart is a table that summarizes how the ratings were devised. Read more about our Food and Recipe Rating System.

Quinoa, Dry
0.25 cup
158.95 calories
Nutrient Amount DV
(%)
Nutrient
Density
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
manganese 0.96 mg 48.0 5.4 very good
magnesium 89.25 mg 22.3 2.5 good
iron 3.93 mg 21.8 2.5 good
tryptophan 0.06 g 18.8 2.1 good
copper 0.35 mg 17.5 2.0 good
phosphorus 174.25 mg 17.4 2.0 good
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
Rule
excellent DV>=75% OR Density>=7.6 AND DV>=10%
very good DV>=50% OR Density>=3.4 AND DV>=5%
good DV>=25% OR Density>=1.5 AND DV>=2.5%

In Depth Nutritional Profile for Quinoa

References

  • Ensminger AH, Esminger M. K. J. e. al. Food for Health: A Nutrition Encyclopedia. Clovis, California: Pegus Press; 1986.
  • Fortin, Francois, Editorial Director. The Visual Foods Encyclopedia. Macmillan, New York.
  • Johnsen NF, Hausner H, Olsen A, Tetens I, Christensen J, Knudsen KE, Overvad K, Tjonneland A. Intake of whole grains and vegetables determines the plasma enterolactone concentration of Danish women. J Nutr. 2004 Oct;134(10):2691-7.
  • Liu RH. New finding may be key to ending confusion over link between fiber, colon cancer. American Institute for Cancer Research Press Release, November 3, 2004.
  • Touyz RM. Role of magnesium in the pathogenesis of hypertension. Mol Aspects Med 2003 Feb 6;24(1-3):107-36.
  • Tsai CJ, Leitzmann MF, Willett WC, Giovannucci EL. Long-term intake of dietary fiber and decreased risk of cholecystectomy in women. Am J Gastroenterol. 2004 Jul;99(7):1364-70.
  • Wood, Rebecca. The Whole Foods Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Prentice-Hall Press; 1988.

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