Go with the grain: Quinoa
For most of us, grains form the basis of our diets. Bread, pasta and rice are so ubiquitous that they could be easily dismissed as ‘dull fillers’. But the grain family is incredibly varied and, especially with wholegrains, boasts a wealth of beneficial nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fibre and protein.
In this series we will look at some of the more unusual grains, their nutrients and benefits, and will aim to demonstrate how you can easily incorporate them into your diet.
Quinoa (pronounced "keen-wah") is native to South America, where it has been cultivated in the Andes since ancient times. Although it is often referred to as a grain, quinoa is not really a cereal, but rather belongs to the Amaranthaceae-Chenopodiaceae plant family which includes spinach, Swiss chard and beets.
The UN named 2013 ‘International Quinoa Year’ in recognition of the crop’s high nutrient content. Here are the main nutrients:
- Protein - Quinoa contains an unusually high amount of protein (8g in one cup of cooked quinoa). Most grains are considered to be inadequate as total protein sources because they lack adequate amounts of the amino acids lysine and isoleucine. In contrast, quinoa has significantly greater amounts of both lysine and isoleucine, which makes it a complete protein source. Quinoa is, therefore, an excellent choice for vegans who may struggle to get enough protein in their diets.
- Fat - In comparison to cereal grasses like wheat, quinoa is higher in fat and can provide valuable amounts of heart-healthy fats like monounsaturated fat (in the form of oleic acid) as well as small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Fibre - Naturally high in dietary fibre, quinoa is a slowly digested carbohydrate, making it a good low-GI option.
- Vitamins & Minerals - 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 shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Quinoa is also a good source of folate, manganese, magnesium, zinc, and phosphorus as well as some of the B vitamins.
- Anti-oxidants - Quinoa is an impressive food in terms of its overall anti-inflammatory phytonutrient content and can provide significant amounts of anti-oxidants such as ferulic, coumaric, hydroxybenzoic, and vanillic acids. The anti-oxidant 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 in high-flavonoid berries such cranberry or lingonberry.
How to Enjoy…
The tiny seeds should be washed and rinsed before cooking to remove the naturally-occurring saponins that coat the seeds and have a bitter taste. Many instructions call for a ratio of two parts water to one part quinoa for cooking, which yields a texture close to porridge. For a fluffier texture, use more water. For a nuttier flavour, you can dry roast it before cooking; to dry roast, place it in a skillet over medium-low heat and stir constantly for five minutes.
Quinoa is among the least allergenic of all the grains, making it a fantastic wheat-free choice. If you are new to quinoa, here are some ways to incorporate it into your diet:
- Combine chilled cooked quinoa with orange slices, chopped walnuts and chopped scallions for a refreshing salad. This salad travels well, so it would make a great packed lunch.
- Use cooked quinoa in place of oatmeal for breakfast, mixed with milk and topped with fruits and/or nuts.
- For a twist on your favourite pasta recipe, use noodles made from quinoa.
- Quinoa can be sprouted within 2 to 4 hours and used in salads and sandwiches just like alfalfa sprouts.
- Use quinoa in place of pearl barley in your favourite soups or stews.
- Ground quinoa flour can be substituted for part of the regular flour in your favourite muffin, bread or cookie recipes. A word of caution though: don't take all the regular wheat flour out because quinoa is gluten free.
- Quinoa is great to use in tabbouleh, serving as a delicious (and wheat-free) substitute for the bulgur wheat with which this Middle Eastern dish is usually made.
For a great recipe for Quinoa salad with roasted vegetables click here.
Written by Victoria Trowse