One of my favorite foods in the whole grains family is Quinoa (pronounced Keen-wah). I use it in lots of recipes because not only is it high in protein, fiber, and amino acids (vegans pay attention) but it’s quite delicious as well! As a rice or noodle substitute and even as a substitute for oatmeal in the morning!
Quinoa is an ancient food that is not yet well known in North America. It has been cultivated in South American Andes since at least 3,000 B.C. and has been a staple food of millions of native inhabitants. The ancient Incas called quinoa the “mother grain” and revered it as sacred. Each year at planting time it was traditional for the Inca leader to plant the first quinoa seed using a solid gold shovel! Quinoa was used to sustain Incan armies, which frequently marched for many days eating a mixture of quinoa and fat, known as “war balls.” Beginning with the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, there was a 400-year decline in the production of quinoa. It became a minor crop at that time and was grown only by peasants in remote areas for local consumption.
Although not a common item in most kitchens today, quinoa is an amino acid-rich (protein) seed that has a fluffy, creamy, slightly crunchy texture and a somewhat nutty flavor when cooked. Quinoa is available in your local health food stores throughout the year.
Most commonly considered a grain, quinoa is actually a relative of leafy green vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard. It is a recently rediscovered ancient “grain” once considered “the gold of the Incas.”
Not only is quinoa high in protein, but the protein it supplies is complete protein, meaning that it includes all nine essential amino acids. Not only is quinoa’s amino acid profile well balanced, making it a good choice for vegans concerned about adequate protein intake, but quinoa is especially well-endowed with the amino acid lysine, which is essential for tissue growth and repair. In addition to protein, quinoa features a host of other health-building nutrients. Because quinoa is a very good source of manganese as well as a good source of magnesium, iron, copper and phosphorus, this “grain” may be especially valuable for persons with migraine headaches, diabetes and atherosclerosis.
Help for Migraine Headaches
If you are prone to migraines, try adding quinoa to your diet. Quinoa is a good source of magnesium, a mineral that helps relax blood vessels, preventing the constriction and rebound dilation characteristic of migraines. Increased intake of magnesium has been shown to be related to a reduced frequency of headache episodes reported by migraine sufferers. Quinoa is also a good source of riboflavin, which is necessary for proper energy production within cells. Riboflavin (also called vitamin B2) has been shown to help reduce the frequency of attacks in migraine sufferers, most likely by improving the energy metabolism within their brain and muscle cells.
Quinoa is a very good source of magnesium, the mineral that relaxes blood vessels. Since low dietary levels of magnesium are associated with increased rates of hypertension, ischemic heart disease and heart arrhythmias, this ancient grain can offer yet another way to provide cardiovascular health for those concerned about atherosclerosis.
Prevent Heart Failure with a Whole Grains Breakfast
Heart failure is the leading cause of hospitalization among the elderly in the United States. Success of drug treatment is only partial (ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers are typically used; no evidence has found statins safe or effective for heart failure), and its prognosis remains poor. Follow up of 2445 discharged hospital patients with heart failure revealed that 37.3% died during the first year, and 78.5% died within 5 years. (Arch Intern Med. 2007 Mar 12;167(5):490-6.;Eur Heart J. 2006 Mar;27(6):641-3.)
Since consumption of whole grain products and dietary fiber has been shown to reduce the risk of high blood pressure and heart attack, Harvard researchers decided to look at the effects of cereal consumption on heart failure risk and followed 21,376 participants in the Physicians Health Study over a period of 19.6 years. After adjusting for confounding factors (age, smoking, alcohol consumption, vegetable consumption, use of vitamins, exercise, and history of heart disease), they found that men who simply enjoyed a daily morning bowl of whole grain (but not refined) cereal had a 29% lower risk of heart failure. Arch Intern Med. 2007 Oct 22;167(19):2080-5.
Significant Cardiovascular Benefits for Postmenopausal Women
Eating a serving of whole grains, such as quinoa, at least 6 times each week is an especially good idea for postmenopausal women with high cholesterol, high blood pressure or other signs of cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Quinoa is a very good source of manganese and a good source of copper, two minerals that serve as cofactors for the superoxide dismutase enzyme. Superoxide dismutase is an antioxidant that helps to protect the mitochondria from oxidative damage created during energy production as well as guard other cells, such as red blood cells, from injury caused by free
According to the American Lung Association, almost 20 million Americans suffer from asthma, which is reported to be responsible for over 14 million lost school days in children, and an annual economic cost of more than $16.1 billion.
Increasing consumption of whole grains and fish could reduce the risk of childhood asthma by about 50%, suggests the International Study on Allergy and Asthma in Childhood (Tabak C, Wijga AH, Thorax).
Quinoa and other whole grains are a rich source of magnesium, a mineral that acts as a co-factor for more than 300 enzymes, including enzymes involved in the body’s use of glucose and insulin secretion.
The FDA permits foods that contain at least 51% whole grains by weight (and are also low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol) to display a health claim stating consumption is linked to lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Now, research suggests regular consumption of whole grains also reduces risk of type 2 diabetes. (van Dam RM, Hu FB, Diabetes Care).
The whole kernel of truth: as part of your healthy way of eating, whole grains can significantly lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Enjoy at least 3 servings a day.
We usually think of quinoa as a grain, but it is actually the seed of a plant that, as its scientific name Chenopodium quinoa reflects, is related to beets, chard and spinach. These amino acid-rich seeds are not only very nutritious, but also very delicious. Cooked quinoa seeds are fluffy and creamy, yet slightly crunchy. They have a delicate, somewhat nutty flavor. While the most popular type of quinoa is a transparent yellow color, other varieties feature colors such as orange, pink, red, purple or black. Although often difficult to find in the marketplace, the leaves of the quinoa plant are edible, with a taste similar to its green-leafed relatives, spinach, chard and beets.
How to Select and Store
Quinoa is generally available in prepackaged containers as well as bulk bins. Just as with any other food that you may purchase in the bulk section, make sure that the bins containing the quinoa are covered and that the store has a good product turnover so as to ensure its maximal freshness. Whether purchasing quinoa in bulk or in a packaged container, make sure that there is no evidence of moisture. When deciding upon the amount to purchase, remember that quinoa expands during the cooking process to several times its original size. If you cannot find it in your local supermarket, look for it at natural foods stores, which usually carry this super grain.
Store quinoa in an airtight container. It will keep for a longer period of time, approximately three to six months, if stored in the refrigerator.
Prep and Recipe Tips
Here’s the basics on cooking quinoa. Drain and place washed quinoa in a saucepan with 2 cups water to 1 cup quinoa. Add a pinch of sea salt, bring to a boil; reduce heat to simmer. Cover and cook about 15 minutes or until the water is absorbed and the quinoa looks translucent. You will see the white outer germ forming a ring around the grain.
Quinoa is great in a number of dishes including salads, side dishes, breakfast cereal and lots of main dishes. Here are some ideas to try:
- Toss some quinoa with cut up carrots, cucumbers and celery. Add ranch or vinaigrette dressing. I add grilled chicken to mine and sometimes some lime juice for a little kick.
- Use quinoa for any whole grain salad recipe. Here is a simple idea: Mix cooked quinoa with Mandarin oranges, sliced scallions and chopped red peppers. Toss with some tamari, olive oil and orange juice.
- Cook the quinoa in vegetable or chicken broth for extra flavor.
- Make pilaf by stir-frying your favorite veggies in olive oil and adding the cooked quinoa then season with tamari, herbs or salt and pepper. Or try this Quinoa Pilaf with Dried Cherries and Toasted Pecans. Stir together hot cooked quinoa with hot cooked black beans. Add some chopped jicama, salsa fresca, ground cumin and cilantro.
- For breakfast, cook quinoa and add chopped walnuts or almonds, dried and/or fresh fruit. My favorite: Cooked quinoa with sliced bananas and raisins, topped with chopped roasted pecans and a tsp of honey.
- Got leftover steak or other meat? Slice it, add some cooked quinoa, any chopped veggies and balsamic vinaigrette.
- Throw a handful of washed quinoa into a pot of soup in place of noodles or rice.
- If you enjoy chicken salad like I do, then you will love this chicken salad with grapes and quinoa.
- This quinoa dish, primavera with chicken, peas and asparagus, is a complete meal and even my picky kiddos eat this one right up!
- Quinoa makes a great substitute for rice for many favorite dishes such as chicken and rice, Spanish rice, paella, and stuffed peppers. Here’s a good recipe for quinoa-stuffed peppers.
For you vegetarians and vegans out there, a friend of mine told me that quinoa, being high in protein also makes a great ground meat substitute for his family as well. They use it in place of the ground beef in sloppy joes, spaghetti, and tacos.