What Is Quinoa? Nutrition Facts, Benefits & Side Effects

What Is Quinoa

Quinoa is a grain-like seed that has sky-rocketed in popularity in recent years in North America thanks to its impressive nutrition profile and potential health benefits.

Although quinoa has been harvested for thousands of years, it recently gained worldwide notoriety as a so-called “superfood” and is valued for its high levels of plant-based protein, fiber, and antioxidants.

In fact, the United Nations (UN) declared 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa,” due to its protein content, drought-resistant qualities, and potential to help promote food security worldwide (1). 

Does the tiny quinoa seed live up to its “superfood” status? This article will delve into the nutritional value of this food and discuss the potential health benefits of quinoa. 

What Is Quinoa?

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is a grain-like seed, known as ‘the seed of the Andes”. It has been harvested in the Andean region of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru in South America for over 5,000 years. 

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) has its origins with the Incas and was referred to as “the mother grain” and “gold of the Incas.” It is still a diet staple among the indigenous cultures of that part of the world.

This “ancient grain” is not a grain at all. Rather, it is a seed from the goosefoot plant, the same plant family that produces vegetables such as beets, chard, and spinach. 

However, the quinoa seed is sometimes referred to as a pseudo-cereal since it shares many similarities to grains and is often used as a starch or cereal substitute (2). 

There are over a hundred varieties of quinoa. However, the most common types available in grocery stores are white quinoa, red quinoa, and black quinoa.

How to Cook Perfect Quinoa

How to cook quinoa perfectly

Since quinoa seed is not technically a grain like farro or millet, it is prepared slightly differently than other grain products. However, the good news is that it is relatively easy to prepare and has a short cooking time. 

Depending on the brand you buy, the first step is to rinse the dry quinoa under cold water to remove saponins, which impart a bitter taste. Saponins are natural compounds with a soapy taste found in the seed’s outer coating that help keep insects away from the quinoa plant without the need for pesticides. 

This may be a new step you have to add if you are used to cooking kañiwa that contains no saponins and requires no rinsing. 

Many manufacturers have already removed the saponins, making this step unnecessary. When in doubt, you can always check the nutrition label or package for specific cooking instructions. 

Below, you will find a basic quinoa recipe for making perfect, fluffy quinoa.

Cooking time: 15 to 20 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2 cups water or broth, such as chicken broth
  • 1 cup of quinoa (6 ounces)

Directions

  • Rinse quinoa in a fine-mesh strainer under cold water to remove the natural coating of saponins. 
  • Combine the ingredients in a medium saucepan on the stove and bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat, cover with a lid, and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until most of the cooking liquid is absorbed.
  • Let stand for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork. Season with salt and pepper. 

Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or in the freezer for two months. 

You can also make fluffy quinoa in your rice cooker using the same two parts liquid to one part quinoa ratio and following your cooker’s instructions. 

Many people also prepare uncooked quinoa with other flavor-adding ingredients like cloves garlic, onions, spices, and herbs like cilantro. 

How to Eat Quinoa

How to eat quinoa

When cooked correctly, the perfect quinoa has a mild and nutty flavor and slightly crunchy texture, which pairs well with many meals and snacks. 

Its incredible versatility in cooking also gives a good reason to always keep a bag of quinoa in your pantry. 

Some quinoa recipe ideas include:

  • Salads
  • As a rice, pasta, couscous, or noodle substitute
  • As a breakfast porridge with fresh berries and chia seeds
  • In soups and stews
  • Quinoa and legumes salad
  • In a lentil soup 
  • Paired with garlicky sautéed spinach and kale 
  • As part of a veggie side dish 
  • Combined with overnight oats 
  • Half an avocado stuffed with tomatoes and quinoa
  • Cucumber and quinoa salad with a 1 tbsp olive oil and citrus dressing 
  • Cinnamon apple breakfast cereal
  • As a pilaf
  • As a replacement for bulgur or bulgur wheat in tabbouleh
  • As a veggie burger 
  • As part of baked oatmeal or granola
  • In a smoothie
  • In casseroles
  • In cakes

Nutrition Facts

Below is the nutrient composition for one cup (185 grams) of cooked quinoa (3).

  • Calories: 220 calories 
  • Fat: 3.6 grams
  • Total Carbs: 39.4 grams
  • Sugar: <0.5 grams 
  • Fiber: 5.2 grams of fiber
  • Protein: 8.1 grams of protein
  • Thiamin: 12% of the daily value (DV)
  • Riboflavin or vitamin B2: 12% DV 
  • Vitamin B6: 11% DV
  • Folate (or folic acid): 19% DV
  • Iron: 15% DV
  • Magnesium: 30% DV
  • Potassium: 9% DV
  • Zinc: 13% DV
  • Phosphorus: 28% DV
  • Manganese: 58% DV

One cup of quinoa also contains small amounts of vitamin E, selenium, vitamin B3 (aka niacin), and omega-3 fatty acids.

Benefits

Excellent Source of Plant-Based Protein

Quinoa is a good source of protein and is noteworthy for being a complete source of essential amino acids. 

Amino acids are the building blocks needed to make protein. Nine amino acids are essential for human life, meaning your body cannot make these compounds, and they must be obtained from the diet instead.

When a food source has all nine essential amino acids, it is considered a complete or high-quality protein.

Meats are generally an excellent source of complete protein. However, most plant foods are deficient in one or more essential amino acids, particularly lysine. 

Since quinoa is a complete protein source, it is a great choice for vegetarians or vegans. 

Good Source of Dietary Fiber

Quinoa is higher in fiber than other grains and provides roughly 5 grams of fiber in a cup (3). This equals about 15% of the daily requirement for many adults, depending on your age and gender. 

However, different varieties may contain even more fiber. One study that looked at four varieties of quinoa found that the amount of fiber ranged from 10 to 16 grams of dietary fiber per every 100 grams (4). 

Consuming enough fiber has been linked with beneficial health outcomes, including lower cholesterol and better blood sugar control (5-7). 

Additionally, quinoa is a source of both insoluble fiber and soluble fiber. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to stools, which helps decrease the risk of constipation (8).

Soluble fiber has been widely studied and is linked to many health benefits. Numerous studies have shown that soluble fiber may help maintain healthy blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol levels, decrease constipation, and improve digestion (5-9). It also acts as a food source for the “good” bacteria in your large intestine, thereby maintaining digestive health (9). 

Additionally, fiber-rich foods may play an important role in weight maintenance and help prevent obesity (9,10). This is because fiber can help you feel fuller for longer, potentially causing you to eat fewer calories.

High in Antioxidants

Quinoa is a source of antioxidants, which may help prevent inflammation and oxidative stress by protecting against damaging free radicals. 

In particular, quinoa products are a rich source of polyphenol antioxidants.

There is growing research that polyphenols may have beneficial effects on health and are associated with a reduced risk of many chronic diseases, including cancer and cardiovascular disease (aka heart disease) (11, 12).

Consuming quinoa products in your diet is just one way to boost your intake of these important nutrients. 

Great Gluten-Free Option

Gluten is a protein that may trigger health problems for those who have gluten sensitivities or celiac disease. It is found in barley, rye, spelt, and wheat products, such as flour, buckwheat, bran, and wheat germ.

Since quinoa is not a cereal grain, it is naturally gluten-free. Additionally, quinoa products are often less processed than many gluten-free food options on the market, which are usually made from tapioca, corn, rice, or brown rice flour. 

Some research suggests that using quinoa or quinoa flour as a gluten-free grain can enhance the nutrient and antioxidant profiles of gluten-free foods (13, 14). 

This makes quinoa products a great choice for individuals on a gluten-free diet.

An Excellent Source of Magnesium and Other Essential Nutrients

One cup quinoa contains approximately 120 mg of magnesium, or about 30% of the daily value, depending on age and gender. 

Magnesium is essential for human health and can be found inside every cell in the body. It plays an important role in enzymatic reactions, muscle and nerve function, blood sugar control, and blood pressure regulation (15-17). 

In fact, low magnesium levels have been linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and migraine headaches (18). 

In addition to magnesium, quinoa is also a source of vitamins and minerals that many people in the United States don’t consume in sufficient amounts, including copper, potassium, zinc, certain b vitamins, and manganese. 

May Improve Metabolic Health

Since quinoa is high in many essential nutrients, it would make sense that this food may help improve metabolic health.

One small and dated study found that healthy volunteers who consumed quinoa products in place of typical gluten-free bread and pasta had significant reductions in blood sugar and triglyceride levels (19). 

Additionally, quinoa has a low glycemic index, meaning that it does not spike blood sugar as rapidly as foods with a higher glycemic index, such as carrots. This may be beneficial for blood sugar control.

More research is needed to explore the specific effects of quinoa products on human health. However, quinoa is a highly nutritious food that will likely offer health benefits when combined with a healthy lifestyle. 

Side Effects and Considerations

Overall, quinoa is a nutritious food and makes a great option for most meal plans. Some things to consider when increasing this food in your diet are:

A Source of Oxalates

Quinoa is a source of oxalates- natural compounds that are found in many plant foods that can bind to calcium in the digestive tract, which decreases the absorption of this mineral. 

Additionally, calcium oxalate kidney stones are the most common cause of kidney stones in the United States. 

If you are at high risk of developing kidney stones, decreasing the amount of oxalates you eat may help lessen this risk. 

However, recent studies show that combining calcium-rich foods with high oxalate foods at meals may be a better approach to preventing kidney stones than simply limiting oxalates in your diet (20). This is because calcium binds to oxalates in the digestive tract before reaching the kidneys, potentially resulting in fewer kidney stones. 

A Source of Phytic Acids

Phytic acids are natural compounds found in plant products that may impair iron, zinc, and calcium absorption during digestion.

However, soaking or sprouting quinoa seeds prior to cooking can reduce their phytic acid content.

Additionally, consuming a balanced diet rich in variety helps offset the impact of phytic acids and makes nutrient deficiencies due to these compounds unlikely. 

May Be Too High in Carbohydrates for Low-Carb Diets

While quinoa is a highly nutritious food and has less starch than other cereals, keep in mind that it is fairly high in carbs. There are roughly 40 grams of carbohydrates in a one-cup serving, which may be too much for individuals following a ketogenic diet. 

Other Potential Side Effects

As with all foods, consuming any one type of food in large quantities could result in stomach pain and diarrhea. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Quinoa Better Than Rice? 

Yes, quinoa may be the better choice and higher in health value depending on the type of rice you have in mind. Although quinoa is technically not a cereal grain, it is still considered a whole grain food. Many rice varieties, such as white rice, are processed grains, meaning that they don’t have as much fiber and nutrients. 

You can use quinoa in place of white rice to add more fiber and nutrients to your meals. 

However, brown rice is also a whole grain food and makes an excellent addition to most diets. Additionally, quinoa prices are often higher than the cost of brown rice, which is a significant consideration for many people. Therefore, it may be a good idea to stock both of these gluten-free grains in your pantry. 

Is Quinoa Good for Weight Loss?

Yes, quinoa has a good amount of protein and dietary fibre, both of which may be useful tools for promoting weight loss along with healthy lifestyle changes. 

Protein has been shown to reduce appetite and may help boost metabolism. Similarly, soluble and insoluble fiber can increase feelings of fullness and satiety, which may cause you to eat less throughout the day. 

Bottom Line

For such a small seed, quinoa packs a nutritional punch. It is an excellent source of complete protein, dietary fiber, antioxidants, and many vitamins and minerals essential for human health. 

Plus, quinoa is relatively easy to prepare, has a mild flavor and fluffy texture, and makes an excellent addition to a daily diet. It is also a healthy option for gluten-free diets and may help vegans and vegetarians consume enough high-quality protein. 

Perhaps a great option for adding more of this “superfood” to your diet is to try some of the snack and meal ideas listed in this article. 

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