Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) has been growing in popularity as a health food and an alternative to grains since the 1970s. And there are undoubtedly some great reasons to enjoy quinoa in your diet — read more to find out how and why:
History: Quinoa was the food that sustained prehistoric civilizations and cultures throughout the Andes Mountains, especially in an area known as the Altiplano. It’s estimated that Quinoa was domesticated as a crop between 3,500 and 5,000 years ago and has been in continuous use since that time. Quinoa was the most important crop of the Tiwanaku civilization, which pre-dated and laid the foundation for the Incan empire. At the principal Tiwanaku city, near Lake Titicaca (1,100-1,400 AD), large quinoa fields provided enough nutrition to sustain a population as large as 500,000 people! After the Tiwanuku civilization fell, the Incas continued to rely on quinoa as a primary source of food (in combination with potatoes) to sustain their empire until they were colonized by the Spaniards. Many people throughout the Andes Mountains continue to rely on quinoa as an important source of nutrition and income to this day.
Quinoa is a special plant because it’s highly nutritious and uniquely suited for growing at high elevations and in inclement conditions. In fact, this nutrion powerhouse prefers harsh climates; it only grows well above 11,000 feet, and it even grows well in salty soil. Another great thing about quinoa is how versatile it is. Both its leaves and seeds are edible. Like the plants it’s related to (beets, spinach, chard), quinoa’s leafy greens are rich in anti-oxidants, minerals, and vitamins; they can be sauteed or added to soups. The seeds are high in both starches and a high quality, complete protein. Quinoa seeds were traditionally used in soup or porridge, to make flour, or to ferment into a special drink called chicha.
Considerations: While quinoa can be a rich source of high quality nutrients, it also contains the anti-nutrients saponin and phytic acid. In order to neutralize the anti-nutrients and release the good nutrition, quinoa should be properly prepared and served the way indigenous cultures learned to serve it through trial and error over thousands of years.
The bitter saponins that coat the quinoa seeds much be removed by washing. A common traditional method was to wash the quinoa with three different rinsings. I’ve personally experienced that three washing does just the trick; by the third rinse you’ll notice visibly fewer suds caused by the saponins. You can use a strainer to rinse the seeds, but I’ve found that the seeds are heavy enough that I can just decant most of the water from the top of the pot.
Most of the phytic acid content (60-70%) can be removed by an overnight soaking. Don’t let the extra preparation scare you away — it’s incredibly simple. All you have to do is put the quinoa you plan to cook in a pot filled with water for 12 hours. Since I usually enjoy my quinoa for breakfast, I just put it in a pot with water the night before. The next day I rinse off the saponins, and it’s ready to cook. There’s really nothing to it. Also, the soaking will help the quinoa cook faster, making it easier to prepare before heading to work.
A non-nutrition related consideration, but still very important, is the source of the quinoa. Recently, the increased demand for quinoa in the United States created a price inflation that’s making quinoa difficult to afford for the people (in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador) who grow quinoa and depend on it as a staple food. The increased demand has also led to a greater risk for unsustainable growing practices, leading to soil erosion and ecological damage. But, responsibly and ethically supplied, quinoa can be both a good source of income for South American farmers and maintain its place in traditional diets. Fair Trade Certified companies like Alter Eco work together with local farmers to ensure sustainable practices, and they make sure that local farmers keep at least 10% of the crop for the personal use (this way they don’t have to rely on disease-promoting, processed industrial foods for survival).
Nutrition Highlights: Properly prepared, quinoa is high in a complete protein (great for vegetarians), digestible carbohydrates (mostly glucose, the body’s preferred source of energy), several B-vitamins, and a number of important minerals, including potassium (which can’t be said for grains). To boot, quinoa isn’t actually part of the grain family, so it’s gluten-free. It’s also a great source (like spinach) of phytoecdysteroids, which may promote muscle development and improve bone density.
Key nutrients in a 1/4 cup (dry measurement) serving of quinoa:
- 27 g of carbohydrates and 6 g of protein
- Thiamin – 10% DV
- Riboflavin – 8% DV
- Vitamin B6 – 10% DV
- Folate – 19.5% DV
- Iron – 11% DV
- Magnesium – 21% DV
- Potassium – 7%
- Zinc – 9%
- Copper – 12.5%
- Manganese – 43%
- B-ecdysterone (phytoecdysteroid) – 15 mg
(Nutrition information is from the USDA National Nutrient Database)
The Take Away: Quinoa is an excellent source of protein, carbohydrates, and many important micronutrients. It’s an especially perfect food for people on gluten-free or vegetarian diets. In order to actually digest all those great nutrients, just remember to soak quinoa for at least 12 hours, then rinse it three times. Also, there are only a few places in the world where quinoa will grow, and a lot of people who want to eat it, so be sure to keep the people in mind who are growing it (as well as the environment where it is being grown) by buying quinoa that is certified fair trade.
Breakfast Porridge (two servings):
Ingredients: 1/2 cup quinoa, 2 cups water, 2 tbsp butter (from grass fed cows), 2 tsp honey, cinnamon, and milk.
Directions: Bring quinoa and water to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until quinoa is soft and of porridge consistency. Reduce heat to low then add milk to preferred consistency and heat until milk is warmed. Remove from stove and divide into two bowls, then add 1 tablespoon of butter and one teaspoon of honey to each bowl. Sprinkle with cinnamon to desired taste.
Recommended Products: Alter Eco Fair Trade Certified Quinoa
References: Alternative Field Crops Manual, Quinoa: Production, Consumption, and Social Value in Historic Perspective, Living with Phytic Acid (Weston Price Foundation)
Originally posted 2013-05-09 19:43:37.