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Quinoa -- Andean Superfood

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Updated February 10, 2014

quinoa salad

Quinoa Salad

Sabine Scheckel/Getty Images

Quinoa is a seed that's used as a grain in cooking so it's part of the grains and cereals food group. It comes from the quinoa plant (Chenopodium quinoa wild) that's part of the goosefoot family of plants, which mostly includes weeds such as wormseed and lambs quarters. It's native to the Andes Mountains of South America where it has been harvested for more than five thousand years.

The name quinoa (pronounced as KEEN-WAH) comes from the Incan word for "mother grain."

Serve quinoa like you'd serve rice or oatmeal, or you may find quinoa flour that can be used in gluten-free cooking (although some forms of quinoa may contain gluten). The main drawback to quinoa is that the seeds are covered with saponins, which are plant compounds that foam when they're mixed with water, similar to soap. The saponins won't hurt you if you consume them, but they give a bitter flavor to the quinoa seeds.

Quinoa has about the same amount of calories as regular rice, but it's more nutritious and higher in fiber than either brown or white rice. Quinoa is good source of protein. In fact, it's a complete protein, which means it contains all the essential amino acids. This is unusual for a plant-based foods so it may be helpful for planning vegan and vegetarian diets. Quinoa is also a good source of minerals, including magnesium, iron, and selenium. It also contains B-complex vitamins, including folate, and vitamin E.

One cup of cooked quinoa has:

  • 222 calories
  • 8.14 grams protein
  • 3.55 grams fat
  • 5.2 grams fiber
  • 32.62 grams starch
  • 31 milligrams calcium
  • 2.76 milligrams iron
  • 118 milligrams magnesium
  • 318 milligrams potassium
  • 2.02 milligrams zinc
  • 1.167 milligrams manganese
  • 5.2 micrograms selenium
  • 0.198 milligrams thiamine
  • 0.204 milligrams riboflavin
  • 0.762 milligrams niacin
  • 0.228 milligrams vitamin B-6
  • 78 micrograms folate
  • 2.2 milligrams vitamin E.

It used to be tough to find quinoa in typical local grocery stores, but today you'll find quinoa at most markets, either in the natural foods section or with the rice and other grains. Some brands of quinoa have removed the seed coats (and the bitter saponins) which makes preparing it easy, but some brands still require soaking - read the package directions to know for sure.

Quinoa can be prepared by cooking in water, usually with about two cups of water for every one cup of dry quinoa seeds. The cooked quinoa can be eaten hot, or served immediately or stored in the refrigerator for up to four days.

Not familiar with quinoa? It's easy to prepare and you can serve it plain or turn it into a pilaf. It goes well with sweet ingredients like raisins and dried cranberries, and also pairs nicely with legumes and nutty, savory flavors. Here are some healthy recipes I found that will help you to get started:

Sources:

Cornell University Department of Animal Science. "Plants Poisonous to Livestock." Accessed May 16, 2012. http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/toxicagents/saponin.html.

Purdue University. "Alternative Field Crops Manual - Quinoa." Accessed May 16, 2012. http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/quinoa.html.

United States Department of Agriculture National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 24. "Nutrient Data for 20137, Quinoa, Cooked." Accessed May 16, 2012. < http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/6430.

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