Native to parts of South America, quinoa forms a staple part of many traditional Andean diets amongst indigenous peoples. 

In recent years, however, it has been growing ever more popular around the world, gaining recognition of late as people learn about its fantastic nutritional benefits. Quinoa is perhaps most famous for being one of only a handful of vegan sources of a complete range of amino acids, though it also deserves recognition as an excellent source of dietary fibre and a panoply of micronutrient vitamins and minerals.

However, it is not all sunshine for quinoa. There is also a fair amount of controversy surrounding this innocent seeming grain, as both its sustainability as a monoculture crop and the effects of intensive farming on local communities comes into question.

Read on for more on this controversial, yet brilliantly healthy, grain in my quinoa 101:

What is quinoa?

bowl of mixed quinoa

Quinoa is an annual seed-producing flowering plant that is grown commercially as a grain crop. Unlike other grains like wheat and rice, it is not a grass: rather it is a pseudo-cereal botanically more closely related to spinach.

Quinoa seeds form a staple part of many South American diets and their use in modern western cuisine has been on the rise in recent years, due in no small part to their many nutritional, health giving benefits. They are gluten free and rich in complete proteins, dietary fibre, B vitamins and dietary minerals – far more so than most other grains.

The price of quinoa has more than tripled since 2006 as consumption has skyrocketed in North America, Europe and Australasia. These days, an average of nearly 200,000 tons of quinoa are produced annually.

Quinoa is cultivated in the Andes Mountains of Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, in Colorado in the United States, and in several European countries. Of these, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru are the largest producers, with Peru topping the list. 

It originated in the Andean region of north-western South America, where it was first used as livestock fodder up to seven thousand years ago. Human consumption is thought to have begun more like three to four thousand years ago in Peru and Bolivia.

The Whole Grains Council estimates that there are about 120 known varieties of quinoa, with white, red and black quinoa being the most heavily commercialised and consumed. White quinoa is the most accessible in shops, especially in the west. However, red quinoa is often used for its ability to maintain its shape after cooking.

Quick facts about quinoa

There are many upsides to including quinoa in your diet, and many uses to which you can put it culinarily. However, amongst the usual suspects of what would make a food worthwhile are a few interesting facts I would like to pick out before we get into the nitty gritty. 

Please read on for my top eight facts about quinoa:

Quinoa is not a whole grain

Though it is often referred to as a whole grain, and is used as such in many dishes, in point of fact quinoa is not actually a grain at all. Rather, it is part of a protein-rich family of plants whose members include beets and spinach.

 

It grows in the hardiest conditions…

Quinoa can grow in a fantastically diverse range of climates. These can include areas of varied heat, those with minimal rainfall or irrigation, and those without proper fertilisation. No wonder the Andes – which boast some incredibly rugged, varied terrain – are quinoa’s natural home.

 

…and it gets around more than you might think

Back in the 90s, NASA researchers deemed quinoa to be the perfect inflight food for astronauts on longer term missions. Its mineral rich, gluten free, high amino acid profile won them over, as did its convenience for storage in zero gravity.

 

It has collected some of the highest accolades

The UN declared 2013 to be The International Year of Quinoa (presumably they hadn’t been reading The Guardian too much…) The decision was based on what they cited as quinoa’s endurance and durability as a crop, saying that this contributed greatly to global food security.

 

It can make for a good night out

Whilst we typically use quinoa as a grain, replacing the likes of rice, barley or couscous with it as a healthier, less starchy option, Bogota locals drink it. They brew it into a traditional Andean beer called Chicha.

 

It’s the devil’s crop

Spanish conquistadors – including Pizarro himself – thought that quinoa was unholy, stuff of the devil. This is due to its ubiquity amongst certain indigenous, notably non-Christian cultures. They even went so far as to outlaw it. Of course, the conquistadors are all dead now and quinoa has never been so popular… that’s a win for botany, I think.

 

It’s the talk of the town

I’ll cover this towards the end of this article, but quinoa production has courted a fair amount of controversy in recent years. In 2013, The Guardian newspaper published a piece about the knock on effect of quinoa’s rising popularity on Bolivian farmers. 

 

Western taste for quinoa had pushed prices up so much that locals who had relied on it for centuries as a staple could no longer afford it. Debates raged, taking in talk of ethical food choices and sustainability.

 

The debate has yet to be fully settled.

 

It has an inner beauty (and can help with your external beauty)

Quinoa is only beautiful (tasty and edible) on the inside. It protects itself from predators by forming a bitter tasting, waxy coat around its crops. This is made from saponins, an organic compound that is usually washed off during cultivation (though not always- see my preparation tips below for more information on how to get rid of this.) Traditionally, certain Andean tribes would save this saponin wax for use as shampoo.

Nutritional profile

Quinoa is a fantastic source of protein as it contains a full complement of amino acids, including leucine and isoleucine. In addition, it is a good source of fibre, iron, zinc, calcium, copper, thiamine, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, folate and vitamin B6. One serving provides at least 10% of the RDI of each of these.

Quinoa’s special composition and balance of protein, oils, fats and healthy fatty acids make it well worth including in your diet. It is also rich in phytohormones, which are rarely found in plant based foods. 

Phytohormones aid in regulating plant growth and some types, called phytoestrogens, are currently being studied as a possible treatment for symptoms of menopause.

Health benefits of quinoa

healthy quinoa salad

With such a wide range of nutritional benefits, it’s no surprise that quinoa is being lauded as a superfood. But does it deserve such a reputation?

It certainly brings with it a lot of nutritional niceties that all add up to one of the most impressive lists of health benefits you are likely to see in such a humble appearing ingredient. 

Far more than your average grain, quinoa boasts a health giving profile like few others:

It’s a complete protein

I mentioned a few of the amino acids above – leucine, isoleucine and valine. However, these are only three of the twenty amino acids from which complete protein can be made…and quinoa contains them all. It’s one of the only plant sources that does so.

This is particularly important when it comes to the essential amino acids – the nine amino acids – histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine – that the body cannot produce on its own. Quinoa contains all of these in roughly equal amounts.

It’s important to note that quinoa – along with whole grains – contains around 25 percent more protein than refined grains.

It provides anti-inflammatory benefits

Quinoa and whole grains may help in decreasing the risk of dangerous inflammation. They help to promote healthy gut microbes which play a key role in obesity prevention and combating inflammation and disease. 

Quinoa contains many nutrients that have anti-inflammatory effects, including phenolic acids, vitamin E family nutrients such as gamma-tocopherol, and cell wall polysaccharides.

This is very important. Whilst we still do not fully understand the implications that chronic inflammation might have on the human body, disorders like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and Crohn’s disease are listed amongst its effects.

It helps to lower cholesterol and improve your heart health

The fibre content to be had from quinoa is crucial in helping to lower cholesterol levels. Fibre aids in digestion, which requires bile acids that are made in part with cholesterol. As your digestive system improves in efficacy and efficiency, it pulls more cholesterol from the blood to create more acid bile. This in turn reduces the amount of LDL (bad cholesterol.)

One study found that people who were overweight or obese who then ate 25-50 grams of quinoa daily for 12 weeks say significant improvements. Their triglyceride concentration was depleted and a 70% drop in metabolic syndrome prevalence was noted

Obviously, lowering LDL cholesterol is well documented as being beneficial to your heart health. However, the story doesn’t end here – quinoa has more heart healthy goodies to give. One study notes that quinoa seeds possess many of the dietary flavonoids shown to correlate inversely with heart disease mortality. Additionally, quinoa contains oleic acid which will provide monounsaturated (heart healthy) fat, alongside omega-3 fatty acids and alpha-linolenic acids – all good for the old ticker.

It could prove vital in managing diabetes and hypertension

Researchers who studied various traditional Peruvian grains and legumes for their potential in managing the onset of Type 2 diabetes found that quinoa was a great source of the antioxidant quercetin; quinoa had the highest antioxidant activity overall out of all of those studied, at 86%. 

This study led the researchers to the conclusion that both quinoa and kañiwa, its close relative, have potential in helping in the development of effective dietary regimes for managing Type 2 diabetes. It would also aid in combating hypertension, often associated with Type 2 diabetes.

It’s gluten free

Though more research is needed before judgement can be passed on the efficacy of a gluten free diet for people who do not suffer from Celiac disease, many people report experiencing positive results from adopting one.

However, it can be hard to take in a full range of essential nutrients on a gluten free diet. Iron, calcium, thiamine, niacin, folate, dietary fibre and riboflavin will often be found lacking. However, quinoa is both gluten free and nutritionally dense, giving plentiful supplies of protein, iron, calcium and fibre. 

Adding quinoa to gluten free dishes will also pick up their polyphenol content compared with including other options such as rice or corn. It will give more antioxidants as well, meaning that free radical cell damage will be diminished if you include quinoa in your diet.

Top Tips for Cooking the Best Quinoa

white quinoa on a wooden spoon

To get the most out of your quinoa, there are some basic steps that are advisable to follow. Just stick to the following list and you’ll maximise taste, texture and health benefits every time you reach for it.

Wash it well

I’ve already mentioned the bitter tasting saponin that forms quinoa’s protective coating. You do not want to end up eating it. Though most commercially available quinoa has already been rinsed free of most of this saponin layer, it’s always best to be careful. Run your quinoa under cold water for 30 seconds before cooking, making sure to shake off any excess moisture.

Toast them for a better taste

It’s worth giving this one a go. Uncover quinoa’s natural nutty flavours by toasting them in a frying pan. Simply heat a tablespoon of oil – 1tbsp for every cup and a half of quinoa – in a pan until it’s at a medium temperature. Add the quinoa and stir constantly to avoid burning. Do this for about eight minutes: you’ll be very glad you tried it.

Try different liquids for the boil

Of course, most of us use water for boiling grains and pulses, and this is a solid option. However, if you want to change it up a bit, or add a little extra flavour or nutritional value, try using something else. 

Vegetable or mushroom broth work really well, as does a little stout or ale to give you a deep, rich flavour. Always keep a 2:1 ratio of liquid to quinoa.

Keep an eye on your watch

Unlike some other grains or pulses, quinoa really doesn’t take that much cooking. About 15 minutes at the boil should suffice. Bring the water to boiling, then dial the temperature right down and simmer for the rest of the time. It will pop open when it’s ready, unveiling the kernel’s germ – this will be ready to serve. Don’t leave it in for too long.

How to cook your quinoa in the microwave

You don’t have to spend ages every time bringing water to the boil and then waiting for your quinoa to cook through on a simmer: for a quick alternative, you can always use your microwave.

As I mentioned above, you will always want to start off your quinoa cook by rinsing them of their waxy residue. When they are clean, add to 2 cups of water in a microwaveable container for every 1 cup of quinoa. Cover your container with a lid and cook the quinoa for 6 minutes.

Remove the bowl and stir, then place it back in the microwave and cook for a final 2 minutes more.

Remove once more and let it sit for another 5-10 minutes, covered the whole time, as the last of the hot water is absorbed into the quinoa.

Tips on storing your quinoa

A lot will depend upon whether your quinoa is cooked or uncooked, but either way, I’ve got you covered!

Storing Raw Quinoa

For your raw, uncooked quinoa, you will want to store it in an airtight container. A zip up bag, mason jar, or Tupperware would all be perfect. Make sure to reseal it each time you take some of the quinoa out. Keep it either in a cool, dry place such as your larder, or else in your fridge or freezer.

Stored in this way, raw quinoa should last you up to 3 years.

Exposure to light and heat will shorten the quinoa’s shelf life – both raw and cooked alike. 

Storing Cooked Quinoa

Though cooked quinoa has a much shorter shelf life than raw quinoa, there are some things you can do to keep it going for longer. To make sure that it stays good and uncontaminated, always consume, refrigerate or freeze quinoa within a couple of hours of cooking.

You will also want to store your cooked quinoa in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer. It will last you about a week in the fridge, or up to a year when frozen.

Cooked quinoa may lose its texture and shape, turning into more of a very unappetising mushy sludge. In bad cases it can even develop mould. Always check for signs of this before serving cooked, stored quinoa – discard it if it looks bad.

How to reheat leftover quinoa

three different types of quinoa

Of course you can reheat your leftover quinoa. The two best ways to do so are in the microwave or on the stove-top/hob. If you’re in a hurry, the microwave will obviously be your best bet; if you have the time, the stove-top might give you a better texture and flavour.

In the microwave

It’s always best to break food up as much as possible before you microwave it. It will heat more quickly and evenly this way. This is especially true of quinoa. Load up your bowl with as much leftover quinoa as you need or have, and then separate it and break it down with a fork.

Next, use the fork to make a small well in the middle of the quinoa- this will allow the heat to spread quickly and evenly. Add a couple of tablespoons of water to moisten and then microwave for 30 seconds. Take it out, stir and re-separate, before microwaving for a further 30 seconds.

On the stovetop

The old fashioned way – and my personal favourite. It’s straightforward and gives you a lovely taste and texture that the microwave tends to miss. Add your quinoa to the pan with a tablespoon or two of oil (I prefer olive or walnut) and a dash of water for moisture.

Quinoa will absorb the water and you will want it to be formed of separated grains when you are done, rather than the thick paste you might find if you don’t add enough water. If you find your quinoa turning into a paste like this, keep adding dashes of water until it breaks apart.

Heat the quinoa over a medium temperature until it is warmed through. This should take about 8-10 minutes, at the end of which a lovely, warming nutty aroma will begin to rise from the pan.

Make sure to keep stirring, spreading the heat evenly and separating out the grains.

Should you sprout quinoa?

Sprouting is a process that allows you to reap even more nutritional benefits from an ingredient than you would originally have got. Quinoa will germinate and this will allow for easier, more efficient digestion and nutrient absorption and uptake.

One of the main benefits of sprouting is in its ability to decrease the levels of phytic acid present in an ingredient. Phytic acid is an enzyme inhibitor that can falter the absorption of micronutrients from food. It can also cause digestive issues, alongside disrupting the balance of your healthy gut bacteria. Obviously, limiting intake should be celebrated.

Sprouting is easy enough, though it takes a little time so you will need to prepare in advance and show your quinoa a little patience. Read on to find out how to do it.

How to sprout your quinoa in three easy steps

  1. Rinse and drain your quinoa and then place it into a large mixing bowl. Submerge your quinoa completely using filtered water. Allow it to soak for an hour.
  2. Drain the excess water and rinse once more, then transfer your quinoa to a sprouting jar. A fine sieve will do just as well if you don’t have a sprouting jar.
  3. Rinse your quinoa every few hours and be sure to drain off all water. Sprouting will occur in about 24 hours but continuing to sprout for up to 2 days will give you a softer consistency in the end result.

Sprouted quinoa can be stored the same as cooked quinoa. Place it in an airtight container and leave it in a dry, cool place, or refrigerate. It will last you up to a week in this way.

Quinoa Recipes 

Here’s a selection of a few favorite quinoa recipes for you to try:

One pot Mexican spiced vegetable quinoa

mexican quinoa one pot dish

If you’re a fan of the bold, hearty flavours that Mexican food typically delivers then this one should go to the top of your list of dishes to cook. It’s a spicy, one pot quinoa loaded with everything you would want from such a bowl. This one pot Mexican spiced vegetable quinoa is packed with lovely, robust flavours and health giving ingredients. It has all the protein and fibre you expect of quinoa, with well cooked vegetables loaded in for good measure.

Homemade quinoa milk

quinoa milk

Though nut milks may be on the rise thanks to their delicious taste, this homemade quinoa milk also has a lovely flavour and comes with a much reduced amount of fat. All this and it only requires water and quinoa at a base level. 

However, this recipe suggests adding ground cinnamon and dates, which is an idea I can really get behind. The dates are far healthier than any sweetener you could buy.

Vegan quinoa breakfast bowl

quinoa breakfast bowl

This delicious vegan quinoa breakfast bowl is very easy to make and gives you a healthy and filling breakfast, ready in just a quarter of an hour. Have it nice and warm in the autumn or winter to fortify you against the coming day with its miserable weather: after a bowl of this you’ll be able to take on anything!

Does quinoa have any downsides?

There are a couple of health concerns to take into account when including quinoa into your diet. Foremost is the saponin coating that I have mentioned above. Saponins are designed to protect plants against diseases and infection. They will generally disagree with your stomach if you ingest them, alongside having quite an unpleasant, bitter taste.

As I stated above, it’s always best to rinse your quinoa thoroughly before cooking.

The high fibre content might also contribute to an upset stomach. If this is the case, moderation will be key.

Always consult a qualified healthcare professional if you feel you are having any adverse reactions to any foods.

The environmental impact of quinoa’s growing popularity

sacks of quinoa

As I mentioned above, there has been debate in recent years over the possible adverse effects that quinoa’s rise in popularity has had on the Bolivian and Peruvian farmers who have traditionally relied on it as a staple food source in their own diets.

When an increased demand cannot be fully met by an increased supply, prices tend to rise. As a result of its newfound popularity, therefore, the price of quinoa has risen exponentially over the last decade. 

In countries where it is grown, and where local populations are reliant on it, farmers are struggling to satisfy demand even as people have been unable to afford the quantities to which they are accustomed.

The production methods that have resulted have both had a strongly adverse effect on local biodiversity and environmental well-being at the same time as poverty in local communities has become a more and more common occurrence.

This new culture has played an understandably profound role in shaping local ecosystems and economic practices. How so, though?

The new demand has led to farmers wanting and needing to expand production. They have expanded their lands suitably, in a bid to be able to cultivate and grow larger harvests. Whilst quinoa was traditionally grown in the relatively cool climate of the Andean highlands – where the crops thrived – as consumption has increased, farmers have expanded its area of cultivation. This has resulted in them forcing out other crops that have traditionally been grown in the region. 

Bolivian quinoa production increased by 40 times between 2000 and 2009, with the U.S. alone importing around 52% of Bolivia’s annual yield.

In short, quinoa has become a new monoculture, joining crops such as soy and corn, which are grown mostly to feed livestock, dominating arable land in the U.S.

This complicates the ethics surrounding quinoa. If no solution is found in the near future – one in which locals receive the quality of life and crop they are due and to which they are accustomed, and in which the world’s appetite for health giving quinoa is satisfied – quinoa may no longer be as viable a dietary ingredient as we would like it to be.

Quinoa 101… Done!

On that note, that’s me finished extolling the virtues (and vagaries) of quinoa for the moment. We’ve hopefully gone through everything you need to know about this increasingly popular staple. 

It’s touted as many as a terrific health food, garnered in recent years in no small part due to its full protein complement and the healthy fats and fibre it imparts. It has earned its place as a healthy alternative to grains, although its sustainability remains an open question.

There are some fantastic, traditional ways of preparing and eating quinoa, alongside some more modern, inventive recipes – I really want to get around to trying quinoa beer one of these days! 

However you decide to enjoy it, why don’t you let us know what quinoa uses and recipes work the best for you?

Don’t forget to share in the comments down below.

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quinoa 101 guide

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Dixon lives, works, and trains in Glasgow, Scotland.
 
He is an active freelance health and fitness writer, fully qualified personal trainer and veggie athlete. He holds several black belts and is currently training in both strength/barbell athletics and kickboxing. He has had an interest in animal welfare all his life, having been raised vegetarian, and has trained numerous athletes on plant based diets to great effect in recent years. Writing on vegetarian and vegan lifestyles and training is a passion for him.