Quinoa, the Super-Grain
Never heard of quinoa? This amazing super-grain cooks in 15 minutes and has more protein than any other whole grain.

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picture of bowl of quinoa Quinoa, the Super-Grain

The ancient Incas used to call quinoa the "mother of all grains". Packed with nutrients and full of flavor, it was a food staple in South America 5,000 years ago.

If you have never heard of quinoa (pronounced "keen-wah"), you are in for a delightful surprise. Today, this little-known health food is starting to make a big splash in the nutrition world.

Nutrition star
Though it's actually a seed, quinoa has a nutrition profile similar to grains such as wheat, oats, barley and brown rice. Like most whole grains, quinoa delivers about 220 calories and 5 grams of fiber per cup, along with a host of vitamins and minerals.

But in addition to its quick cooking time, quinoa is often considered a "super-grain" by experts because of its:

Unique protein qualities. Quinoa has 8 grams of protein per cooked cup. Not only is this high for a grain (most have 5 grams), but it's considered a "complete" protein. This means that it includes all nine essential amino acids, just like animal sources of protein. Most grains are deficient in the amino acid lysine.

Gluten-free status. This makes quinoa a safe alternative for those who have celiac disease or otherwise need to avoid gluten. It's also considered an ideal food for those prone to food allergies. Quinoa is a good choice for people who cannot tolerate common grains like wheat, corn, rye and barley.

Cooking with quinoa
Quinoa is not yet popular like rice or oats, so you won't find it in every supermarket. Try looking in the rice aisle for boxed quinoa. Health food stores will have quinoa in bulk bins and/or packaged.

  • Most quinoa you buy will have the bitter cover, or saponin, removed. But because some of this may still be present, it's always wise to rinse the quinoa well in a small colander before cooking.
  • Combine 1 cup grain to 2 cups liquid water or low-sodium broth. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn heat down to low and steam for 15 to 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed.
  • Before cooking, some like to toast the raw quinoa briefly in a hot dry pan for about 5 minutes, which will produce a nuttier flavor when cooked.
  • As quinoa cooks, the germ is released from the exterior of the grain and forms a tiny spiral. You'll recognize it easily by its white coloring and sprout-like appearance.

Recipe ideas
In addition to its stellar nutrition profile, one of the best benefits of this grain is that it is quick and easy to prepare. While most whole grains take 30 to 45 minutes to cook, quinoa is done in just 10 to 15 minutes.

Quinoa also has a mild, nutty flavor that is suited for soups, salads and pilafs. It's also an excellent alternative to rice or couscous.

  • As a breakfast cereal, try mixing cooked quinoa with a little milk, honey, slivered almonds and banana or berries.
  • Instead of noodles, toss 1/2 cup of raw quinoa into a soup pot with broth and veggies during cooking.
  • Use quinoa in place of any hot or cold rice or barley dish and enjoy its unique light, chewy texture.
  • Quinoa flour, sold in health food stores, can be used as you would rice flour. The flour makes a perfect thickener for soups, sauces and gravies.

So, how about adding quinoa to your shopping list? Introducing new foods to your diet is a great way to add variety and avoid boredom with the same old standards.

By Jane Schwartz Harrison, RD, Contributing Nutritionist
Created on 05/14/2009
Updated on 06/04/2012
Sources:
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Carbohydrates.
  • Purdue University. Horticulture and landscape architecture: Quinoa.
  • American Dietetic Association. Get keen on quinoa.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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