What is Quinoa: Grain or Seed?
A pseudo-cereal is a seed that is prepared and eaten like a grain and even ground into flour for baking. However, it isn’t technically the same thing.
Its closest relations are spinach (yes, spinach!) and amaranth. Other members of the goose-foot family include chard and one of my favorite wild edible greens – lamb’s quarter. (1)
Quinoa seeds are very tiny, not as tiny as teff or amaranth, but almost! They are roughly a similar size to pearl millet.
Types of Quinoa
Like lentils, quinoa comes in a variety of colors: primarily white, red, and black. Some manufacturers blend them together into rainbow quinoa like what is shown in the picture above. Purple quinoa is also available, which is very similar to red. Orange quinoa is a milder variation of red as well.
White quinoa is by far the most common. It has the mildest taste and the lightest texture. Red quinoa holds its shape better while cooking, so is a great choice for salads. Red quinoa is also the richest and slightly nuttiest in flavor. Black quinoa has an earthy taste that is a bit sweeter than the white quinoa.
Similar to amaranth, domesticated quinoa originates in South America around three thousand or more years ago. Researchers think that it originated from an area area surrounding Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia, what we generally refer to as the Andes mountains.
Pre-Columbian civilizations relied on it as a staple. Again similar to amaranth, when the conquistadors arrived, cereal grains from Europe replaced quinoa as the invaders forced their culture and food upon the indigenous peoples.
The method native people groups used to grow quinoa is reminiscent of the three sisters approach to corn and beans among the cultures of North America.
Instead of growing it in isolation from other crops, they sowed quinoa among many other plants. Unlike corn, quinoa does well in cooler, dryer, less fertile lands. It will handle light frosts and shorter days as well, making it a productive yet more resilient staple crop. Quinoa also germinates quickly, which makes growing easy but can complicate harvest. (2, 3)
Quinoa Nutritional Profile
Quinoa is one of the very few plant foods that contains all the essential amino acids. It also contains an abundance of trace elements, and vitamins! For this reason, some compare quinoa to good quality dairy products.
Since quinoa contains all the essential amino acids, some may initially jump to the conclusion that it is equal nutritionally to animal proteins. However, this snap judgment would be in error.
Quinoa does not contain all the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities to support human health as consumed within the context of a normal, balanced diet.
Thus, the plant protein found in quinoa is intrinsically inferior to the truly complete proteins in dairy, eggs and meat. Animal proteins are able to function as a sole source of protein in the human diet unlike any single plant protein on earth. You can get a sufficient amount of complete protein by carefully combining plant protein sources, but this is difficult and requires consuming such large amounts of plant protein that you may literally not have the stomach for anything else! (4)
Vitamins and Minerals
Quinoa is a very good source of magnesium, phosphorous, and manganese. It is a good source of many other vitamins, minerals, and nutrients as well, including iron, zinc, copper, and a number of B-vitamins. (5)
But that isn’t all about quinoa! It contains numerous anti-inflammatory substances as well.
Quinoa is high in anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, which make it potentially beneficial for human health in the prevention and treatment of disease. Quinoa contains small amounts of the heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids and, in comparison to common cereal grasses has a higher content of monounsaturated fat. (6)
What compounds does quinoa contain that causes so many sing its praises? One is quercetin. Indeed, it is higher in some of these beneficial substances than well known phyto-nutrient powerhouses like cranberries and pineapples!
Quinoa Health Benefits
As demonstrably one of the most nutritious plant foods, what are the benefits of consuming quinoa? Certainly, it must be a beneficial food in the diet given its long history of consumption among many exceptionally healthy people groups. While science has much farther to go to completely assess the impact of quinoa in the diet, below is a summary of what is known so far.
For those trying to lose weight and get off the metabolic syndrome train, quinoa offers a moderate glycemic index (GI) of 53. This compares to oats, another gluten free option, with a GI of 55. (7)
This ancient Andean grain offers promise as an effective food for curbing appetite and promoting healthy blood lipid levels. (8)
The Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture identifies quinoa as a “functional food” in that its consumption reduces the risk of various diseases. (9)
An animal study published in the Netherlands Journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition found that consumption of quinoa seeds inhibits the reduction of HDL cholesterol in a high fructose diet compared with a control group. It also significantly reduced blood glucose. (10)
Who Can Eat Quinoa?
For those that are gluten free, quinoa is a traditional staple that is generally allowed. Of course, those that eat grains are encouraged to eat quinoa too. It is a nice mix-up to add variety to a diet that might otherwise be overly heavy in wheat, corn, and/or rice.
One thing quinoa is not is low-carb!
Note that quinoa is very, very high in fiber, more so than almost any other seed or grain. So, overconsumption can create some significant bathroom issues for those that are sensitive! If you want to try quinoa, start slow and see how you do. Tweak from there as your digestive tract gradually adjusts.
One thing I teach about food is that almost nothing wants to be eaten by something else! So, animals, plants, vegetables all defend themselves from the desires of other creatures to turn them into a snack!
With quinoa is there anything to worry about? Yes! Saponins!
Saponins are bitter compounds that are naturally present in quinoa—along with lots of other foods, including a wide variety of legumes, vegetables, and herbs. They get their name because they lather up in water, like soap suds. In fact, the herb soapwort is one of the most concentrated sources of saponins and can be used to make a natural cleanser.
Like many other phyto-compounds, saponins are produced by plants as a method of natural pest control. The bitter taste of these compounds makes the plant less palatable to birds, insects, and humans. (11)
Well, even Thrive Market and a number of other companies have quinoa warnings and guides on their websites because of the number of consumer complaints of digestive distress after consumption! (12)
Thankfully, careful preparation methods virtually eliminate this problem. These steps were followed by traditional peoples as well. More on this below.
Should Quinoa be Rinsed or Soaked?
How do you get rid of soap on your dishes or hands? Why with water of course! So guess how you get saponins out of your quinoa? The same way! You should rinse quinoa thoroughly before cooking. A good rinse will remove a fair bit of the troublesome saponins.
Soaking is NOT recommended for quinoa. The reason is that it can negatively affect the texture of the final cooked product making a bit of a soggy mess similar to what happens when soaking flax or chia seeds. The potential risk for the saponins to leach into the tender seeds instead of into the water is a risk too according to some sources.
The good news is that a thorough rinse will only take about ninety seconds to two minutes. Once rinsed, you are ready to cook and eat! And, skipping the soak in favor of a good rinse results in a creamier texture. (13)
Some companies now sell pre-washed quinoa so that the saponins are already reduced or removed for you! Unfortunately, it appears that instead of rinsing it these companies instead remove the surface saponins via abrasion. This also removes some of the bran and thus the nutritional benefits at the same time.
It seems the best approach then, to purchase unwashed organic quinoa and take care of saponin removal yourself just before cooking. (14)
No Need to Rinse Sprouted Quinoa
There is one caveat to the rinse but don’t soak recommendation.
If you choose to buy sprouted quinoa (either white or a rainbow medley) there is no need to rinse it before cooking. This is because the seeds were already thoroughly rinsed as part of the sprouting process.
Since sprouting accomplishes much of the same benefits as soaking, a good alternative to the conundrum of whether or not to soak quinoa seeds is to just buy sprouted in the first place (or sprout them yourself!).
Cooking with Quinoa
In some dishes, quinoa may create a great deal of foam on the surface of the cooking liquid, especially if it isn’t rinsed properly. These are the saponins. It can make your pot look like it’s full of water from the washing machine or the bathtub!
If this happens while you are cooking, be sure to carefully remove this soapy foam with a large, slotted spoon. The process is identical to what is done when bone broth is brought to a boil before simmering.
How to Source Responsibly
The exponential increase in worldwide demand for quinoa has created a double edged sword for the growers in the high mountains of South America. On the one hand, quinoa is an economic lifeline, a crop that small farmers can grow quite profitably. On the other, the dramatic rise in quinoa prices over the past decade means many people in the very communities growing quinoa can no longer afford it! (15)
This is similar to the situation with coconut oil. In many parts of the world, this staple is now a luxury as prices skyrocketed well beyond what local people can afford.
Another problem is that the surge in demand is resulting in some growers tossing good soil stewardship and other practices to the wind as they scramble to put more land into production. Thus, some regions are seeing a “soil crisis”
Time magazine did an in-depth on this very subject.
Traditionally, quinoa fields covered 10% of this fragile ecosystem, llamas grazed on the rest. Now, llamas are being sold to make room for crops, provoking a soil crisis since the cameloid’s guano is the undisputed best fertilizer for maintaining and restoring quinoa fields. (Other options like sheep poop appear to encourage pests.) (16)
If you regularly consume quinoa, try to source it fair trade or from a reputable company such as Eden Foods. This step ensures the farmers are paid fairly for their product. Organically grown is always a good choice as well, which uses your food dollar as a vote for sustainability.
When I eat quinoa, I don’t want the thought of the communities that cultivate, care for, and curate these traditional crops to give me gastrointestinal distress anymore than the saponins they contain!
John Moody is an author, speaker, farmer, homesteader, and Real Food activist. Most importantly, he is husband to an amazing wife and five awesome kids. John speaks nationally at a wide range of events, along with writing for numerous publications and consulting for farmers, homesteaders, and food businesses.
He recently published his first book, The Frugal Homesteader: Living the Good Life on Less.