Where does quinoa come from originally? South America, specifically the Lake Titicaca region in present day Peru and Bolivia. It was first cultivated for food some 4,000 years before Christ. We know this because it has been found within the tombs of ancient civilizations which we can date with reasonable accuracy. In recent years, primarily during the past decade or two, it has been catapulted to superfood status due the healthy image quinoa has garnered and indeed, it offers many benefits but as you will see in a moment, some are exaggerated.
Is quinoa a grain, vegetable, pasta, nut, or seed?
Most often you hear people refer to it as a grain and in fact, even we at Superfoodly will often discuss it in grain-based recipes and dishes because it's how most people categorize it and we don't want to confuse them by calling it something different.
Quinoa is not a pasta since it hasn't been refined into flour (though it can be ground and made into pasta noodles).
You can't really say if quinoa is considered a vegetable (or not) because in botany, there is no official definition for the word "vegetable" (only fruit is defined). The culinary use of the word vegetable entails any part of a plant that's edible. Of course that's not very helpful since that would include plant-based foods ranging from grains to roots and everything in-between.
Is quinoa a grain? Nope. That's the biggest shock to many people. It's not in the same family as rice or wheat at all. Nor is quinoa a nut. Rather it's more closely related to the leafy greens spinach and chard.
The part we eat are the seeds. For that reason the most accurate way to describe it (other than the vague "vegetable" umbrella) is calling them quinoa seeds, the same as quinoa but just a more technically correct name (if you prefer).
Is quinoa good for you? Better than rice?
Based on the price difference between quinoa vs. rice, one would assume it must be exponentially healthier. Does it live up that expectation or is this just another over-hyped superfood without the benefits to back it up?
|Nutritional Comparison Per 100 Gram Serving|
Does quinoa have less calories than rice? According to these tested measurements, they're almost the same. It is true that quinoa has about double the amount of protein as white or brown rice but beans are clearly the leader in that category for total amount. Though quinoa has the best balance of amino acids among the above, especially for BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids) which are necessary for muscle synthesis and it's a reason why this ingredient is so popular with bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts.
Is quinoa a starch or a protein? Public perception portrays it as the latter but as you see in the above table, how much starch (or complex carbs) it has is an amount comparable to many other grains, excluding white rice. It is good for you in that it has less carbs, but it's not a low carb food. Nor does its protein content necessarily warrant it being labeled a protein first and foremost.
Worth the price and health hype?
When you compare quinoa vs. rice and beans, the latter combo is the winner. Even though quinoa has all the essential amino acids in ample quantities (more so than rice) when you combine the rice and beans together, you get a complete protein for a mere fraction of the cost as that pricey Andean mountain seed.
Then is quinoa healthy? Absolutely. In fact it's great for you. The only point we are trying to make is that you shouldn't feel compelled to buy it over those cheaper options if money is an issue for you. If you're a single mom who is spending a fortune you can't afford on groceries, thinking you need to buy supergrains (or pseudo-grains) because you want to feed your children the healthiest options... don't do it! That's perfectly fine if you can afford it, but you can also create a nutritionally balanced meal with a complete protein simply by mixing ingredients, like brown rice and black or pinto beans.
What if you have diabetes? (or just want less of a blood sugar spike?)
Is quinoa better than rice for diabetics? Versus white rice and pretty much all other fast-cooking types, the answer would be a clear yes. However the glycemic index and glycemic load differences are quite similar with quinoa, rice, and other grains when you compare them.
|Glycemic Index Comparison|
|Glycemic Index / GI Rating (glucose = 100)||Service Size (grams)||Glycemic Load Per Serving|
|Quick Cooking White Basmati||67||150||28|
|Whole Wheat Kernals||30||50||11|
As you see, brown rice is very comparable to quinoa. Keep in mind though that is referencing the kind that is not pre-cooked nor has it been cut microscopically for faster cooking. If your rice requires 20 to 40 minutes in boiling water, then chances are it has a relatively low GI rating.
One strategy diabetics can use to reduce the glycemic impact of not just grains, but also pastas, is to slightly under-cook them. Why? Because then they take longer in your digestive tract to be broken down, which means the sugars/carbs are absorbed even slower. You need to be careful with this approach because those with digestive issues and GI motility problems might not be able to handle par-cooked grains easily or comfortably.
Other unique quinoa health benefits
Despite the fact that the above tables make it look more or less average, it does demonstrate some special characteristics not seen in most grains.
Does quinoa have antioxidants? Yes and a lot of them! The ORAC value you see above is considered the gold standard for measuring the total amount of antioxidant activity within a given food. Since serving sizes though can vary greatly between foods, ORAC uses a standard 100 gram (appx. 3.4 ounce) amount for each.
How much antioxidants quinoa has according to the ORAC scale is quite high. That's largely thanks to its polyphenols quarcetin and kaempferol. You probably have heard that quarcetin has potent anti-inflammatory properties. Other anti-inflammatory phytonutrients in quinoa include the polysaccharides arabinans and rhamnogalacturonans.
To put the ORAC value of white quinoa in perspective, 3200 is about two-thirds as much as fresh blueberries. Though remember the 3200 is for 100 grams of uncooked. Cooking will inevitably destroy some amount of antioxidants. Plus, 100 grams of it cooked represents far fewer seeds than 100 grams of uncooked, which is what the value in this test represents.
Vitamins and minerals
Since quinoa is cooked for relatively long amounts of time (15 to 20 minutes) don't expect to find vitamin C, which is destroyed by heat. But it is rich in the essential minerals iron, magnesium, phosphorus and especially manganese (none of which are affected by heat). It has fair amounts of B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, B6, and folate but not at levels that are much different versus the other grains listed above. Some claim quinoa has vitamin E which is true but it's not a lot; just 2.4 mg (12% of daily value) in 100 grams of it uncooked.
Gluten free goodness
Since quinoa is gluten free and wheat free, of course it gives celiac disease and gluten sensitivity sufferers another alternative to just eating rice all the time! One of us here at Superfoodly falls into that category and appreciates the versatility and unique taste it offers for recipes of all kinds.
Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't: Ancient grains: Opportunities for amaranth, quinoa, millet, sorghum and teff in gluten-free products. ConAgra Mills. July 2010