What is Quinoa? Nutrition Facts, Benefits and Side Effects

Quinoa, Nutrition, Benefits and Side Effects

Quinoa pronounced “keen-wah” is a grain-like edible seed that comes in various colors including black, red, yellow, and white.

It’s naturally gluten-free and full of good-for-you nutrients and vitamins.

It’s a good source of high-quality protein and fiber.

It also offers vitamin B, iron, magnesium and calcium. It’s also a source of potassium, vitamin E, and various antioxidants. These nutrients as a herd keep your health in check and improve your wellbeing.

In this article, we’ll discuss what quinoa is and its nutritional facts. Also, more importantly, what benefits and side effects this grain-like seed offers.

If you are looking for tips on how to cook quinoa, scroll down to our how-to section.

What is Quinoa?

What Is Quinoa?
“keen-wah”

Quinoa is a grain-like crop native to Peru and Bolivia in the area around Lake Titicaca (1).

But it’s in fact not a grain. It’s a “seed” that grows from a plant in the goosefoot family, the same family that produces editable vegetables such as chard and spinach.

Which is why quinoa is gluten-free. 

And while it shares the best characteristics of grains—it’s not considered a grain. It just gets prepared and eaten similarly to one. And it comes with similar nutritional values as grains. 

History of Quinoa

Quinoa was a popular and a staple food in the diet in many of “South American” countries.

In fact, the history of quinoa can trace back to thousands of years to the Inca people living near Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake on earth.

Quinoa was considered the “mother grains” of the Incas (2).

And it was fed to their warriors to fortify them with energy and prepare them for the battle.

When the Spanish conquered Central & South America, they forbade the cultivation of the seed which almost saw it become extinct.

But luckily, quinoa cultivation was restored and it is now thriving all over the world.

Although quinoa has been consumed for thousands of years in South America, it’s only become trendy and reached “superfood status” in recent years.

With the newly acquired star of the health status, quinoa is now seen and can be bought pretty much at every grocery store across the state, including Whole Foods, Safeway, Fred Meyer, and Costco.

It is also widely available at restaurants, especially ones catering to vegetarians and vegan communities as quinoa is their rare prime protein source. 

Luckily for us, quinoa’s accessibility makes it relatively easy to integrate it into our daily diet.

The Quinoa Plant

Quinoa Plant
Quinoa Plant

Quinoa plant grows about 1-2 m tall and has broad, powdery and alternating arranged leaves.

The color of the plant ranges from purple, green, to red.

And their seeds also come in wide varieties including red, white and black.

Approximately 120 quinoa varieties have so far been accounted, according to the Whole Grains Council (3).

Amongst them, the most common ones are red, black, and white quinoa with white being the most popular and accessible. 

While white quinoa is often seen in a salad, red variety is used in soups and such as it holds its shape well after cooking. 

Black quinoa is versatile and has a more distinct earthier flavor than other varieties. 

But for the majority of quinoa recipes, those different varieties can be used interchangeably.

Quinoa Nutrition and Facts

Quinoa is incredibly tasty and nutritious. One cup of cooked quinoa has 222 calories, 21% of your daily recommended dietary fiber, and 16% of your protein intake according to nutriondata.self.com (4).

Below is the complete nutritional profile of quinoa.

1 Cup (185) Cooked Quinoa

QUINOA AMOUNT PER CUP DAILY VALUE %
Calories 222 kcal 11%
Proteins 8.5 grams 16%
Carbs 39.4 grams 13%
Fiber 5.2 grams 21%
Sugar 1 cup 41%
Fat 3.6 grams 5%
Iron 2.8 mg 15%
Potassium 318 mg 9%
Sodium 1 cup 13%
Copper 0.4 mg 18%
Folate 77.7 mg 19%
Calcium 31.5 mg 3%
Manganese 1.2 58%
Magnesium 118 mg 30%
Riboflavin 0.2 mg 12%

Protein

One cup of cooked quinoa provides 8g of protein, which is equivalent to 16% of the recommended daily value. While it may not seem amazingly high, it’s actually quite remarkable for plant-based food.

Quinoa is one of the richest plant-based protein sources available next to soy.

It provides a complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids. 

This is especially valuable since most other plant proteins are considered incomplete proteins as they lack some of the essential amino acids. 

This makes it a great alternative for those on a plant-based diet.

Carbs

About 21% of cooked quinoa is carbs, which is comparable to rice and barley. 

Of those carbs, 83% are starches. The rest is mostly of fiber and a small percentage of sugar, about 4%. 

On glycemic index which measures the speed of blood sugar rising after a meal, quinoa scores 53. It’s relatively a low score indicating a lower risk of such spike (6).

This is good news for those suffering from diabetes. Generally speaking, quinoa is still considered acceptable food that won’t likely to spike your blood sugar level. 

Fiber

Quinoa is an excellent source of fiber, containing almost double the amount you’d find in most other grains.

5.2 grams of fiber are found in every cup of cooked quinoa. This is equivalent to 21% of the daily recommended value. 

About 80-90% of the fiber found in quinoa is insoluble fibers (7).

It’s a type of fiber that assists the material to pass through your digestive system and adds bulk to your stool.

It’s also one nutrient that’s linked to a reduced risk of metabolic diseases including obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Fat

Quinoa is relatively low in fat, containing about 3.4 grams of fat in every cup. 

Quinoa’s fat content is comparable to other types of grain and composed of linoleic, oleic, and palmitic acids. 

Minerals and Vitamins

Quinoa is an excellent source of minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. It provides more fiber, iron, zinc, and magnesium than many other grains.

There are several essential minerals and vitamins found in quinoa. Here’s a list of them and their benefits to the body.

Manganese: This trace mineral is essential for regulating metabolism. It also works to absorb calcium and aids blood sugar regulation. It’s also important for proper brain and nerve function (8).

Phosphorus: A few of the most important minerals in the body, phosphorus and calcium work together to build bones and teeth. About 85% of the body’s phosphorus is found in your bones and teeth, but there’s also a trace amount in cells and tissues throughout the body (9).

Copper: It’s a mineral found in the brain, liver, kidneys, and skeletal muscles. It’s also critical for your heart health. Copper also aids collagen production and iron absorption (10).  

Folate: It’s an essential B vitamin for tissue growth and cell function. It’s also one important vitamin for women during pregnancy (11). 

Iron: Iron is a mineral that helps the formation of hemoglobin (red blood cells). It’s also a key player in carrying oxygen from the lungs to the tissues (12).

Magnesium: Magnesium is a mineral often deficient in the modern Western diet. It’s essential for bone health and the body’s over 300 chemical reactions. Magnesium also works to function your heart, produce energy, and relax and sustain blood vessels (13). 

Zinc: Zinc is an important mineral for overall health, supporting the immune system and fighting off viruses and bacteria. It’s found in cells across the body and also needed for the formation of proteins and DNA (14).

It’s Gluten-Free

One major benefit of quinoa for me is that it’s gluten-free.

Quinoa is completely void of gluten, proteins found in wheat that form a glue-like consistency and chewy texture when combined with water. 

This is great news for those with celiac disease (15).

While many gluten-free products tend to be corn, tapioca, starch, and rice oriented, quinoa is not. It’s a seed that’s far more nutritious than any of its counterparts. 

May Help You Lose Weight

Quinoa is considered one of the best foods to eat when trying to lose weight

It’s rich in weight loss friendly nutrients like protein and fiber. Both are extremely effective in suppressing hunger and increasing satiety. 

Protein, in particular, is essential for weight loss since it takes a great amount of energy to digest. Studies show up to 30% of protein’s calories go to digesting the protein itself. 

This naturally leads to fewer calorie intake and a greater weight loss

Quinoa is also high in fiber, more so than many other whole grains. 

It’s one nutrient that increases the feeling of fullness and helps you regulate your food intake. If portion control is an area of struggle for you, add more fiber to your diet. 

More than any other nutrients, fiber can help prevent overeating and unnecessary snacking. 

Fiber’s low glycemic value may also help prevent insulin resistance and high blood sugar.

Thankfully, quinoa is rich in both nutrients. 

If you are looking for food to add to your weight loss diet, quinoa should be a must on your list.

It May Improve Blood Sugar Control

Quinoa is classified as a whole grain.

Studies show whole grain helps reduce type 2 diabetes risk and improve blood sugar levels 

One study indicates eating fiber (16g) from whole grains may lead to a 33% lower risk of diabetes (16). 

That’s a significant decrease in health risk. 

Research also suggests how whole grains are beneficial for blood sugar control (17).

One study contributes this to quinoa’s phytoecdysteroids content. It has shown effective in lowering blood sugar in a test that used mice (18).

Quinoa also contains enzymes that delay the carb digestion and breakdown. It helps slow down the release of glucose (19).

Possible Side Effects & Safety

Saponins

Saponin is a compound that gives unwashed quinoa a bitter taste. 

While it protects the plants from pests, it can be a mild irritant to your digestive system. It’s also said to prevent the absorption of minerals like iron and zinc (20).

To rid of the bitterness and this compound, rinse your quinoa with water thoroughly. Better yet, soak your quinoa in water before you cook. 

Oxalate

Quinoa contains a high level of oxalates. It’s another compound that reduces the body’s mineral absorption. It’s also found in other plant-foods like buckwheat and spinach. (21)

Also, if you have kidney stones, it’s recommended that you eat fewer high-oxalate foods. Oxalate may bind with calcium to form stones, and the best prevention of it is to not eat much of it. 

Phytic Acid

Phytic acid is found in foods like nuts and seeds. Unfortunately, grains are also one group you find a high content of phytic acid. (22)

It’s a substance that blocks mineral absorption, creating a nutrient deficiency. But phytic acid is not all bad news. 

It also has antioxidant properties that can prevent the formation of kidney stones. 

Soaking quinoa before cooking can help reduce the level of phytic acid. This simple pre-cook process can help improve its digestibility as well as your cook time. 

How to Cook Quinoa

Quinoa’s cooking approach is a bit different than other grains, but it’s still pretty simple.

Rinse it well to get rid of the bitter coating on the tiny seed. 

If you don’t, it’s going to leave the bitter taste. 

When rinsing, make sure to use a fine-mesh strainer. You don’t want those tiny quinoa seeds to disappear down the drain.

If the packaging suggests it’s pre-washed, skip the step above.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of quinoa
  • 2 cups of water or broth

Directions

  • In a medium pot, combine the 1 cup quinoa with 2 cups of water or broth. Bring to a rolling boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until liquid has evaporated (about 15-minutes).
  • Let it stand for 5 minutes, then fluff with a spoon or fork. Season it with salt and pepper. 

If you’d like to add some more flavor, you can also add a drizzle of olive oil and a dash of herbs like parsley for an extra taste.

When cooked, the quinoa will become a little translucent. Use as an indicator of its doneness. 

Rice Cooker

You can also cook quinoa in a rice cooker following the same directions. It’s a hands-free way of cooking, obviously far easier and more convenient than the stove version above. 

Combine 1 cup quinoa with 2 cups of water or broth. Add spices or herbs of your choice along with pinches of salt and pepper. 

Cooking time can vary by rice cooker, but it should be 25-40 minutes depending on the heat and power of your cooker. 

Misato Alexandre

Co-Founder

After making healthy living a priority, Misato lost over 20 lbs in less than 90 days. Instead of weight loss being a dreading experience, living the lifestyle of health and fitness granted her more happiness and joy than ever before. She co-founded Fitwirr to make health and fitness simple for everyone and share her tips through writing evidence-based articles on nutrition, weight loss, and exercise.

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