Quintessential Quinoa

TON - MARCH 2012 VOL 5, NO 2 published on April 10, 2012 in Supportive Care
Karen Connelly, RD, CSO

Quinoa, the ancient “grain” of the Andes, cultivated for over 7000 years, has transitioned itself into our present-day kitchens and the title of a modern-day superfood. The Incas believed quinoa to be a sacred food and referred to the “grain” as the “mother seed.” Many years later, this superfood would make its way to the United States, where its popularity continues to grow as its numerous nutritional benefits are spotlighted.

How do you say that strange name? Quinoa, or “keen-wah” as is it properly pronounced, will have a few people looking twice and asking, “Are you sure that is how you say that?” 

Quinoa is often referred to as a grain but is actually the seed of a plant. It belongs to the same plant family as beets, chard, and spinach. Quinoa cooks up just like a grain, so it is often grouped in this category. One distinguishing quality of quinoa is that it is a complete protein. It is unusual for a plant food to provide all the essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make on their own. This makes quinoa a fantastic protein source for vegans, vegetarians, and those looking to replace an animal protein meal with a plant-based protein meal. One of the amino acids in high concentration in quinoa is lysine. This amino acid is particularly important in tissue growth, tissue repair, and collagen formation. Due to this benefit, quinoa is a good choice for anyone going through chemotherapy, radiation, or postsurgical recovery to help the body heal and generate new cells. 

In addition to the superior protein content of quinoa, it is also abundant in a variety of vitamins and minerals, as well as naturally occurring compounds such as polyphenols, phytosterols, and flavonoids with possible nutraceutical benefits.1 Quinoa is a good source of magnesium, manganese, folate, phosphorus, and potassium.2  The minerals present in quinoa work as cofactors in antioxidant  enzymes.Antioxidants help to protect cells from damage by free radicals that are created from such things as smoking and pollution, as well as the by-products of normal metabolism. Free radical damage is associated with an increased risk of many chronic diseases. Vitamin E is a strong antioxidant that can protect cells against free radicals, and quinoa is an ideal food choice to add to your menu to increase your intake of this important vitamin. Quinoa is also a good source of B vitamins such as thiamin, folic acid, and riboflavin, and it provides about 15% of your daily recommended amount of iron.2 Add a food item that is high in vitamin C such as tomatoes, broccoli, or peppers to cooked quinoa to help improve the body’s absorption of plant-based non-heme iron.

Diet and lifestyle changes may help to reduce the risk of certain types of cancer. In particular, increasing fiber-rich foods in the diet may help to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.4 Quinoa is an excellent source of fiber, providing 5 grams of fiber per 1-cup serving.2In corporating fiber-rich foods from a variety of different food groups en hances the protective effect against cancer and other chronic diseases. It is not well understood at this time if the protective benefit lies solely within the fiber content or if it is how the fiber content of a particular food interacts with the other naturally occurring compounds that helps to reduce the risk of disease. 

By including quinoa in your everyday menu, you will also be receiving a serving of whole grain. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that all Americans make half or more of the grains they consume be whole grains—about 3 to 5 servings of whole grain per day. A half-cup serving of quinoa provides 1 serving of whole grain. The Whole Grains Council is an invaluable resource to help people identify whole grain foods and understand their health benefits, as well as to provide health professionals with scientific studies supporting the health benefits of whole grains. The Whole Grains Council also developed the Whole Grain Stamp found on many food products in your local supermarket. This stamp identifies a food item as whole grain and tells consumers exactly how much whole grain it contains. The Whole Grain Stamp and the wealth of information on their Web site help take the mystery out of eating healthy.

Quinoa is so versatile it can become a part of your regular diet from breakfast to dessert. It can be made into savory or sweet dishes. Cooked quinoa is smooth and fluffy yet slightly chewy with a nutty flavor. It is similar to couscous and rice, so it is easy to substitute quinoa in these recipes. Quinoa can also be used as a hot cereal in the morning—just add the toppings you would typically add to oatmeal, and you will have a nutrient-packed breakfast. The quinoa seed is tiny and round. The yellow seed is the most common variety, but it also comes in red, black, pink, orange, and purple. Quinoa is also gluten free, making it a superb, highly nutritious choice for people with celiac disease or anyone with a wheat allergy or intolerance. 

Before cooking quinoa, the seeds need to be rinsed to remove the soapy saponins that will give the seed a bitter taste if not removed. Commercial brands of quinoa are sometimes sold prerinsed, but it is still good to rinse these seeds one more time before cooking. 

Quinoa is the tiny “grain” with a funny name that packs a huge nutritional punch. The advantages of adding quinoa to your diet are numerous. The excellent protein content, vitamin and mineral profile, as well as impressive antioxidant and phytonutrient activity make it an exceptional food choice to incorporate into the diet. Quinoa is low in fat and is cholesterol free, another added bonus. This is a food item that I regularly recommend people introduce into their diet. It is a great choice for people on active chemotherapy and radiation treatment because of its mild flavor and the ability to adjust it to their particular taste, while at the same time providing more nutrition than plain white rice or pasta. It is also perfect for those patients who have completed treatment and are looking to improve the quality of their diet or perhaps move toward a plant-based diet. Quinoa is a perfect food for people to start this new journey. It is not an intimidating grain or so strange that it may discourage some from making a change to a healthier way of eating. Another recommendation is to encourage people to go their local health food stores or supermarkets and look for prepared quinoa or whole grain salads in the deli section to give them an idea of what these grains should look and taste like once they make it on their own. Making small changes is ultimately what will motivate most people into following a healthier diet and overall healthier lifestyle; quinoa can be that first stepping-stone.

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Last modified: May 21, 2015