Quinoa – All About the Ancient Super Food

South American’s have been cooking quinoa for centuries.  This ancient “superfood” has recently been rediscovered and has become increasingly popular with vegans, vegetarians, people trying to lose weight and anyone who interested in healthy eating.  A great source of protein and slow releasing carbohydrates, it can be used in salad, soup, casseroles, breakfast dishes and even desserts!

quinoaQuinoa Pronunciation

Before we go any further, you may be wondering just what is the proper quinoa pronunciation.  The correct way to say it is “KEEN-wah”.

Now I Know How to Say It.  But What is Quinoa?

Chenopodium quinoa is a member of the goosefoot family.  Although you often hear it referred to as a grain, this is actually incorrect.   Quinoa,  is actually not a whole grain, but a seed.  Although it is used much like a grain, a more accurate term is a pseudo grain or pseudo cereal.  Quinoa is  closely related to leafy green plans like beets, chard and spinach.  The leaves of quinoa can be eaten just like spinach.  Since the seeds can be prepared just like many whole grains, most recipes treat it much like any other grain.

The quinoa plant grows six feet high and has 3 to 9 foot magenta stalks.  The plant looks somewhat like a very tall spinach plant.  The seed heads are quite large and colorful, displaying a range of colors from red to green and yellow.

Modern quinoa is not genetically engineered and it has not been hybridized.  The purity makes it very attractive to those interested in organic living and the purity of their food.

Where does Quinoa Grow?

Quinoa is native to Peru and Bolivia, but in the last twenty years, quinoa has been grown in many countries.  It is now grown in Colorado and Canada, but a large portion of  commercially available quinoa is still imported from South American.  You see yellow quinoa most of the time, but red and black quinoa is also sold.  There are actually some 1800 varieties of quinoa!

Quinoa thrives in sandy alkaline soil that is generally considered poor for most crops.  It loves high elevation and tolerates both freezing and the sun.  The reason it is so frost resistant is the size of the germ, which is much larger than other grains.  (Though remember, it isn’t a grain.)

History of Quinoa

Quinoa has an interesting and colorful history. It has been called many things including the “mother grain of the Andes”, “Incan Gold” and “The mother of all grains.  It is believed that quinoa has been cultivated since 3,000 B.C. in the high Andes mountains.

In the time of the ancient Incas, quinoa was considered a sacred food.  They referred to quinoa as la chisiya mama or “the mother grain”.  It was considered particularly important for pregnant and nursing mother’s as it was believed to improve the milk supply.

Quinoa was the main component of the Andean diet, with animal protein falling into a secondary role.  It is no surprise as a pound of seeds was enough to feed an Andean family of 10 for a year on just one acre of land!  Each growing season the leaders would sow the first seeds with a golden trowel and prayers would be said for a good season.  Armies would march for days with nothing more than “war balls” made up of quinoa and fat to sustain them.

With the rise of the Spanish rule, the popularity of quinoa fell.  The Spanish were not fond of quinoa and referred to it as “Indian” food.  They much preferred their own white rice.  They also realized that quinoa gave the Incas strength, so they burned the quinoa fields and made it illegal to grow quinoa.  As the act was punishable by death, the only places that quinoa survived was in the highest mountains of the Andes.

Flash forward to the 1970’s and the history of quinoa is no less interesting.  Quinoa was brought to the United State from South America, by Don McKinley, who has been called the Quinoa Smuggler.  He was working in South America as an importer and was immediately fascinated with quinoa.  It was enough like rice that you would know what to do with it and had sustained the Incas who ate very little meat for many years.

Although he saw its potential, it wasn’t until the 1980’s when he actively began working towards making this dream a reality.  Living in Boulder, Colorado at the time, he realized that there was a very good chance that quinoa would grow where he was.  He sought out Steve Gorad, a colleague who traveled to Chile often, who was able to get him a 100 Kilo sack of seeds for growing quinoa.

Gorad move to Boulder and the two planted some of the quinoa seeds in their back yards.  They then contacted Dwayne Johnson, a new crops agronomist at Colorado State University.  He was impressed with quinoa as well – so impressed that he was later quoted as saying, “If I had to choose one food to survive on, quinoa would be the best.

By 1982, McKinley and company had nailed down the process of growing quinoa.   Quinoa Corporation was formed in 1983 as a joint venture between Sierra Blanca Associates (a non profit) President David Cusack, Steven Gorad and Don McKinley.

Between 1983 and 1987, just $76,000 of taxpayer money was spent developing quinoa as a new crop in America.  By 1995, the value of this crop was estimated at over $5 million.

From 1984 to the present, sales of quinoa have continued to grow. Today, quinoa seeds grown in the United States are still imported from Bolivia.

Quinoa Nutrition

Although quinoa had fallen out of favor for many years, research conducted during World War II by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization established that the nutritional profile of quinoa was similar to that of dehydrated whole milk.  Specifically, the protein quality was equal to that found in milk.  Although this may have intrigued many people, it would be years before quinoa would become widely accepted as a mainstream food source.

Today, we can attribute much of the popularity of quinoa to its impressive nutritional profile.  It has a near perfect amino acid profile, something that is exceptionally rare among plant based foods. Additionally, it is an excellent source of calcium, phosphorous and iron.  The protein content of quinoa ranges from 10% to 18% making it an exceptional source of vegetarian protein.

Here is how quinoa stacks up against other crops:

Mineral analysis of four selected crops (Wahli 1990).

Content (ppm)

Crop

Calcium

Phosphorus

Iron

Potassium

Sodium

Zinc

Quinoa

1274

3869

20

6967

115

48

Barley

880

4200

50

5600

200

15

Beans

1191

3674

86

10982

103

32

Wheat

550

4700

50

8700

115

14

Click here to learn about all about quinoa nutrition facts or here to learn more about quinoa vs white rice nutrition.

I hear a lot about quinoa weight loss.  Is there any validity to the idea that quinoa can help with weight loss?

While I wish I could tell you that quinoa is the magic cure for your weight loss issues, hopefully you would know better to believe me if I did.  The truth is that the only way to lose weight and keep it off is through a well balanced healthy diet and exercise.

That being said, quinoa is an excellent solution for those looking to lose weight.  Quinoa is high in protein, which studies have shown to help keep you full longer.  It is also packed with fiber, which will help keep your blood sugar levels stable.  Many people report that they are very full after eating quinoa, much more so than they would expect.  Quinoa and weight loss go hand in hand!

Quinoa Saponin

One of the most important things you need to know about quinoa is that the seeds are covered in a bitter substance called saponin.  Saponin, or toxic glycoside,  is an anti-nutrient that protects the seeds as they grow. (Saponin is also found in hops, soybean and alfalfa.)  Although saponin is most often not absorbed, they have been shown to lessened the absorption of nutrients and induce minor intestinal damage.  Historically, saponin has been used as an astringent as well as a soap or detergent. Luckily, the Saponin in quinoa can be easily removed by washing.  Simply place the quinoa in a fine metal strainer and rinse for 5 to 6 minutes, or until the water runs clear.

The Types of Quinoa

Commercially, quinoa comes in four main forms – quinoa seeds, flakes, flour and quinoa pasta.  It’s important to note that unless otherwise stated, recipes that call for quinoa are talking about the seeds.  Quinoa seeds and flakes cannot be used interchangeably!  Quinoa flakes are more like oatmeal and are used as a cereal, in baking and also in baby food.

Cooking Quinoa

If you would like to learn how to cook quinoa, you will be happy to know that it could not be easier!  It can be prepared in less time than rice, so it is a great alternative if you are short on time!    As a cook, you will find it extremely flexible.  Check out this post on how to cook quinoa perfectly if you would like to learn more about how to cook it, or check out my complete collection of quinoa recipes.  Just remember, you need to rinse the seeds prior to cooking in order to remove the bitter saponin.

While quinoa is most often used in the seed form, quinoa flakes and quinoa flour are also becoming popular.  Both are great ways to improve the nutritional content of your dishes.

Storing Quinoa

As long as you keep it in a cool dry place, quinoa will keep for up to a year.

New to cooking quinoa?  I hope you will join my mailing list and receive a free copy of my quinoa cookbook.