There is so much hype about quinoa nutrition that it is hard for many to separate fact from fiction. The ancient Inca grain was discovered by the West in the 1970s and is now held up as a health food if not a medicinal cure.
The mythology around quinoa starts with the name Quechua, the name of the grain in the Inca language. It means “mother of all grain”. They considered it sacred, but Native Americans in North America worshiped corn and the Greeks made the goddess of grain, Demeter, a daughter of Zeus. Quinoa has been hyped as a miraculous ancient grain. It is touted as a super-food or super-grain, though it isn’t technically a grain. (Quinoa is a pseudo-grain or seed.) Yes, quinoa nutrition is in general better than comparable grains. No, it isn’t “super”.
Quinoa is the only carbohydrate source that contains all 9 of the essential amino acids. However, that doesn’t turn quinoa into a healing medicine. The crop is valued by farmers because of how hard it is. It can be raised at sea level and at an altitude of 4000 meters. It has been grown in 40C temperatures and -8C, from freezing winters to scorching summers. The waxy coating on the outside of the seeds naturally deters pests and birds.
Half a cup of quinoa contains fourteen grams of protein, the most protein of any commonly available grain. It provides six grams of fiber, though whole wheat is comparable. It offers a significant amount of iron, magnesium, and potassium. For example, you get 30% of the recommended amount of magnesium, nearly 60% manganese and 15% of your iron from a single serving. While 15% of your iron intake sounds low, note that this is four times as much iron as you get in a similar serving of brown rice.
It contains a decent level of vitamin E, phosphorus, B-vitamins, and calcium. It is a good source of B2 or riboflavin, but you get 13% of your B-1 from a single cup. It has trace amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, though if you’re looking for that particular nutrient, you’re better off eating a piece of salmon or walnuts. It is high in lysine. That amino acid helps heal sore muscles after being strained, but it isn’t “healing”. It is higher than average in copper, though it is rare for a modern person to be deficient in that nutrient. If you were concerned, a single serving of quinoa delivers 18% of your daily recommended allowance of copper. Notably, you get ten times as much folate from a cup of quinoa as a cup of brown rice. A single cup of cooked quinoa has 222 calories. That cup is 4.4% protein, 21.3% carbohydrates, roughly 2% fat, and the rest is water. And it has no cholesterol. The gluten-intolerant like quinoa because it is gluten free but can be cooked like rice or couscous.
The Real World Implications
You can lose weight rather effortlessly if you substitute foods you already eat with healthier alternatives, especially if they’re just as filling but with fewer calories. If you enjoy rice, the edge of quinoa nutrition is only a bonus. A cup of cooked quinoa has forty fewer calories and twice as much protein as white rice. Swap out part or all of the rice in a recipe, and you will get more fiber, fewer calories, twice as much protein and far fewer carbs. You’ll enjoy a similar texture and taste without the wild swings in blood glucose that often leave us hungry an hour or two after eating. We mention it as a rice substitute because you can cook it in a rice cooker. Add two parts water for every one part quinoa. In general, one cup of quinoa could cook in a rice cooker in fifteen to thirty minutes. One of the benefits of quinoa is that it can absorb broth and juices like rice.
The protein and fiber in quinoa leave you feeling fuller longer, so you’re less likely to snack soon after eating a full meal. Quinoa is a better choice than couscous, a wheat derivative.
If you use quinoa in place of corn flour, rice flour or refined tapioca, you increase the nutritional value of the meal while reducing the calories and carbs. If you’re buying refined quinoa like quinoa flour, it may not be as high on the nutritional scale as unrefined seeds.
Factors to Consider when Cooking with Quinoa
You need to rinse quinoa under tap water for at least thirty seconds to rinse away the natural soap layer that coats the seeds. Fail to do this before putting it in a rice cooker, and your meal will have a soapy aftertaste. Know that quinoa nutrition suffers the longer you soak it or boil it.