Bowl and spoon of quinoa grains

The health benefits of quinoa

A complete protein and fantastic wheat-free alternative, the demand for quinoa has risen sharply in recent years. Nutritionist Jo Lewin shares recipes, cooking tips and the nutritional highlights of this fashionable grain-like crop...

An introduction to quinoa

Quinoa, pronounced ‘keen-wa’ is a great wheat-free alternative to starchy grains. There are two types: red and creamy white. Both types are slightly bitter when cooked and open up to release little white curls (like a tail) as they soften.

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Grown in South America (Peru, Chile and Bolivia) for thousands of years, quinoa formed the staple diet of the Incas and their descendants. In recent years, foodies in the UK and the US have heralded it as a superior alternative to bulgur wheat, couscous and rice. Though it often occupies a similar role to these grains in dishes, quinoa is actually a seed from the same family as beets, chard and spinach.

Watch our video guide for the best way to cook quinoa:

Nutritional highlights…

The UN named 2013 ‘International Quinoa Year’ in recognition of the crop’s high nutrient content. With twice the protein content of rice or barley, quinoa is also a very good source of calcium, magnesium and manganese. It also contributes useful levels of several B vitamins, vitamin E and dietary fibre.

Cooked quinoa seeds become fluffy and creamy, yet maintains a slight crunch. It has a delicate and subtly nutty flavor, versatile for breakfast (as a cereal), lunch (as a salad) or dinner (as a side).

Quinoa is among the least allergenic of all the ‘grains’, making it a fantastic wheat-free choice. Like buckwheat, quinoa has an excellent amino acid profile, as it contains all nine essential amino acids making it a complete-protein source. Quinoa is therefore an excellent choice for vegans.

A 100g serving of cooked quinoa provides:

120 calories

4.4g protein

1.9g fat

19.4g carbohydrate

2.8g fibre

Quinoa is high in anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, which make it potentially beneficial for human health in the prevention and treatment of disease. Quinoa contains small amounts of the heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids and, in comparison to common cereal grasses has a higher content of monounsaturated fat.

Research

As a complete protein, quinoa contains all nine essential amino acids – including the elusive lysine and isoleucine acids, which most other grains lack. Naturally high in dietary fibre, quinoa is a slowly digested carbohydrate, making it a good low-GI option.

How to select & store

Ensure there are no tears or holes in the packet of quinoa you are buying as moisture can affect the freshness of the grain. Store in an airtight container and keep it in a cool, dry place where it can last for several months.

Safety

When boiling quinoa, the compound that coats the seeds (saponins) creates a foam. These saponins give quinoa a slightly bitter taste. It is best to remove any leftover saponins on the quinoa coat; thoroughly washing the seeds before cooking by putting them into a sieve and running them under cold water. Once you have rinsed it well, it can be cooked like rice. It will expand to several times the original size during cooking.

Ethical considerations

Quinoa has generated much debate in recent years. Since experiencing a rapid increase in demand, the domestic cost of production has also risen sharply, with the local Andean population unable to afford it and imported junk food being more budget-friendly. Land that once grew a multitude of diverse crops are now dedicated quinoa fields. Our well intentioned health goals may unwittingly be driving unfavorable conditions for local growers.

Recipe suggestions

Sprinkle it on salads:
Quinoa, lentil & feta salad
Spicy tuna quinoa salad
Toasted quinoa, lentil & poached salmon salad

Try it in place of couscous or rice:
Spicy Cajun chicken quinoa
Spicy vegetable & quinoa laksa
Quinoa rice pilau with dill & roasted tomatoes
Vegetarian casserole


This article was last reviewed on 4 July 2019 by nutritionist Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.

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