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Quinoa – The Grain Of The Incas Is So Healthy

Quinoa is a pseudocereal and is a very good source of vegetable protein. The mineral richness of the small grains is also higher than that of our usual types of grain. In addition, the delicious Inca grain is gluten-free and can therefore be added to the menu for those with grain intolerance.

Quinoa: food of the Inca warriors

Quinoa comes from South America and is mainly grown in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. For 7,000 years, the plant has served the people of the Andes as a vital staple food. Quinoa is a pseudocereal, meaning it’s not grass like wheat, oats, and rye. The small Inca seed is a goosefoot plant and thus belongs to the same plant family as beetroot and spinach.

The quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) grows up to 2 m high and is very robust. Extreme weather conditions are endured just as stoically as bad soil. The plant feels comfortable in different climates and tolerates temperatures between -8 °C and +38 °C. In the Andean plateaus, quinoa is grown above 4,000 m, i.e. at altitudes where other crops such as corn would not be able to survive.

This explains why the small, mostly light yellow grains have been indispensable to the Andean people for thousands of years. The indigenous peoples therefore also refer to quinoa as the “golden grain”. Anyone who consumes quinoa regularly benefits – just like the enduring warriors of the ancient Incas – from the resilience and strength of this plant and its delicious seeds.

The importance of quinoa

The term quinoa has its origins in Quechua (German: Ketschua), an indigenous language spoken by the Andean peoples of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. The Quechua word Kinwa means something like: the mother of all seeds.

The correct pronunciation of the word

Quinoa is said to be pronounced “kienwah” according to the widespread phonetics. This is actually how the word is pronounced by the native South Americans who still speak Quechua. However, the Spanish-born population usually pronounces the word “Kinoa”.

Quinoa ban in the Andes

The very first Europeans who came into contact with quinoa were the Spanish conquerors. Under the leadership of Francisco Pizarro and Hernán Cortés, the Incas and Aztecs were fiercely fought in the 16th century. The conquistadors used every means to weaken the indigenous peoples. A draconian measure was to ban the cultivation of quinoa and amaranth and even to make it punishable by death. The devastating consequences of the ban on growing one’s own staple food go without saying.

Quinoa demand is increasing

What the conquerors coveted was not the quinoa, which was classified as unchristian, but the land and especially the gold of the indigenous peoples. Europeans only became interested in small grains at the end of the 20th century. Quinoa received international attention in 1993 with a report by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in which the new grain was praised for its high protein content and special amino acid structure. Quinoa is therefore ideal for use in space stations.

As a result, demand in the USA and Europe increased more and more. The resulting increased world market price was both a blessing and a curse. It had a positive effect on the income of quinoa farmers. But countless people in Peru and Bolivia have not been able to afford the much more expensive food since then.

As a result, what was once a staple food had to be replaced by industrially processed foods that offered no health benefits compared to the traditional quinoa-based diet. In Peru, 1 kg of quinoa now costs more than twice as much as 1 kg of chicken and four times as much as 1 kg of rice. We explain below what you should look out for when you buy quinoa.

The nutrients of quinoa

As far as macronutrients are concerned, quinoa differs from grains in a number of ways: quinoa is richer in protein, fiber, and fat. 100g of raw quinoa contains the following nutrients:

  • 11.2 grams of water
  • 6.1 grams of fat
  • 12.6 grams of protein
  • 64.3 g carbohydrates (of which 1.9 g sugars: 0 g glucose and 0 g fructose)
  • 7.1 g fiber (1.3 g water-soluble and 5.5 g water-insoluble fiber)

Quinoa is an excellent source of protein

The Andean grain has become famous primarily because of its high protein content. On average, 100 g of raw quinoa contains around 13 g of protein. The pseudo-grain is therefore richer in protein than grains such as wheat or rye. But it is not only the amount of protein that is convincing but also the very favorable composition of the essential amino acids.

Quinoa contains all 9 essential amino acids in the optimal ratio. In this case, one speaks of a complete protein. Many plant-based foods are deficient or very low in certain essential amino acids such as lysine. However, quinoa is an exception here, because it contains all the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities.

For these reasons, quinoa is an excellent source of vegetable protein, which makes the consumption of animal products such as meat or milk superfluous. Thanks to quinoa, the Andean population could remain healthy even when little or no animal protein was available.

Not only does quinoa contain more protein than grain, but it also contains about three times the fat. The oil contained in the granules consists mainly of essential fatty acids with an interesting proportion of omega-6 fatty acids.

Quinoa oil consists of:

  • 19.7 to 29.5 percent from oleic acid
  • 49 to 56.4 percent linoleic acid
  • 8.7 to 11.7 percent from linolenic acid

The proportion of (poly)unsaturated fatty acids thus makes up 87 to 88 percent of the total fatty acids. These compounds have gained prominence as they have health benefits such as positive effects on the immune system, cardiovascular disease, cell membrane function, and increased insulin sensitivity. In addition, quinoa oil contains a high concentration of antioxidants that protect against free radical damage.

Quinoa triples in size when cooked

When preparing it, you should keep in mind that quinoa – such as B. risotto rice – absorbs a large part of the liquid during cooking and thus swells powerfully. If you now cook 100g of raw grains, you will get an oversized portion of around 300g of fluffy, soft quinoa. If you use quinoa as a side dish or serve it with lots of delicious vegetables, 30 g raw (i.e. 90 g cooked) quinoa is perfectly sufficient.

The Calories of Quinoa

There is about 366 kcal in 100 g of raw quinoa. The pseudocereal, therefore, contains slightly more calories than grains such as wheat or rye. With the same amount (100 g) of cooked quinoa, however, the calorie content is only 118 kcal.

Glycemic index and glycemic load of quinoa

The glycemic index (GI) indicates how much a carbohydrate-containing food affects the blood sugar level: the lower the GI, the less and more slowly the blood sugar level rises. Quinoa has a GI of 35. Values up to 55 are considered low.

However, GI has disadvantages in practice. Because it always refers to 100 g of carbohydrates in the respective food. It is therefore neither taken into account how high the carbohydrate content actually is nor whether and how much dietary fiber it contains. Therefore, the glycemic load (GL) should always be taken into account.

The GL includes the number of carbohydrates and fiber contained in each serving. Scores up to 10 are considered low, scores from 11 to 19 are medium, and scores 20 and above are high. 100 g of raw quinoa has a GL of 20.5, which is therefore classified as high. For a serving of cooked quinoa, however, you never need 100, but only 30 g of raw quinoa, which ultimately results in a GL of 10.7, which is quite low for carbohydrate-rich food.

Quinoa is rich in complex carbohydrates

When it comes to healthy eating, carbohydrates get a bad rap. But carbohydrates are not just carbohydrates. While simple and double sugars (e.g. dextrose and table sugar) quickly enter the blood and drive up insulin secretion, the so-called complex carbohydrates must first be broken down during digestion and then slowly and evenly enter the blood.

Quinoa is high in these cheap complex carbohydrates that don’t cause extreme insulin spikes and keep you fuller for longer. In 2020, researchers from the University of Auckland in New Zealand compared the carbohydrates of the pseudo-cereals quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat with those of fruits and vegetables. They found that the composition of carbohydrates is much more similar to that of fruit and vegetables than that of grains. The dietary fibers of the pseudocereals showed antioxidant, anti-tumor, and immunomodulatory effects.

Although quinoa is rich in carbohydrates, it is considered an excellent source of energy and represents an optimal basis for a wholesome diet – even for people who are overweight and have type 2 diabetes.

Is quinoa allowed on low carb?

With quinoa, complex and therefore healthy carbohydrates end up on the plate, but the amount of them cannot be described as low carb. Whether and how much quinoa is allowed with low carb depends on the particular low-carb diet.

In the Atkins diet z. For example, carbohydrates are almost completely avoided at the beginning, so that quinoa should be removed from the menu. With the Logi method, on the other hand, the carbohydrate content can be between 15 and 30 percent, so small portions of quinoa can be enjoyed very well.

Quinoa for fructose intolerance

Because quinoa contains no fructose at all, it generally doesn’t pose a problem for people with fructose intolerance.

The vitamins of quinoa

Apart from the fact that quinoa seeds are an excellent source of vegetable protein, their vitamin content is also quite convincing.

The minerals of quinoa

Quinoa is also rich in minerals. The content of magnesium, iron, manganese, and copper is particularly high.

Quinoa: a perfect staple

It is true that quinoa can be recommended for people with a low-protein diet due to its high-quality protein. But quinoa has so many benefits that it can be warmly recommended to every single person, regardless of whether they are on a low-protein or high-protein diet.

According to scientists from the Universidad de La Serena, quinoa shines z. B. also due to the unusual composition and the extraordinary balance between protein and fat. In addition, there is a high content of minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. The interaction of all ingredients gives quinoa functional properties that make an important contribution to nutrition. According to the researchers, quinoa protects cell membranes, which has been shown to have good effects on the brain and reduce the risk of various diseases.

Quinoa as a remedy

In the Andes, quinoa has been considered not only a nutritious food for thousands of years but also a medicinal one. According to recent research, in addition to nutrients, secondary plant substances make a major contribution. The most important include: phenolic acids, flavonoids, terpenoids, and steroids. These substances keep microorganisms, birds, and insects away from the quinoa plant, but they also offer us, humans, considerable benefits.

According to studies, some of the phytochemicals in quinoa have the following properties:

  • antidiabetic
  • anticancer
  • antimicrobial
  • anti-inflammatory

Specifically, according to a study published in 2017, consuming quinoa reduces the risk of diseases caused by oxidative stress. These include e.g. such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

Quinoa against high cholesterol and obesity

A double-blind study conducted at the State University of Sao Paulo involved 35 overweight menopausal women. They were divided into 2 groups and ate either 25g of quinoa flakes or cornflakes daily for 4 consecutive weeks. Only in the quinoa group could the total cholesterol level and the “bad” LDL cholesterol be reduced. In addition, the GSH value (glutathione level) was increased. Glutathione is an endogenous antioxidant that contributes to detoxification and the fight against free radicals.

Quinoa protects against diabetes

Quinoa also lowers the risk of developing type 2 diabetes – as shown by a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study by the Universidad Católica de Murcia. Participants were 30 patients who were already suffering from the preliminary stages of diabetes (= prediabetes: increased fasting blood sugar and insulin resistance, but no manifest diabetes). Patients were divided into 2 groups, one taking quinoa for 28 days, and the other taking a placebo.

Only in the subjects in the quinoa group did the blood sugar level drop and the feeling of satiety increase. Also, the quinoa squad lost weight. Regular consumption can therefore help protect against type 2 diabetes.

Quinoa against cardiovascular diseases

Quinoa may even be helpful in preventing cardiovascular disease. In western countries, these diseases are responsible for about 45 percent of all deaths.

)In a meta-analysis with a total of 206 test persons, it was found that a dietary supplement with quinoa can reduce the number of risk factors for cardiovascular diseases: body weight and waist circumference were reduced and insulin and cholesterol levels could be lowered.

An international double-blind study conducted in 2021, in which 40 subjects aged 50 to 75 took part, came to the same conclusion. They ate either 5 g quinoa biscuits (60 g quinoa flour per 100 g) or quinoa-free biscuits made from wheat flour in addition to their normal diet for 4 weeks. Their lifestyle habits (e.g. exercise) remained the same.

It was shown that the subjects in the quinoa group were able to reduce their BMI, weight, and cholesterol compared to the control group. The conclusion was that eating quinoa biscuits can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, even if lifestyle changes are not made.

Quinoa for migraines

People who suffer from migraines in particular often notice a strikingly positive effect when they eat more quinoa. An excellent source of magnesium (70 percent more than wheat or rye), quinoa helps relax blood vessels, thereby preventing the vasoconstriction that is so characteristic of migraines.

Migraine sufferers report that they suffer from significantly fewer pain attacks with the help of quinoa. Riboflavin (vitamin B2) is also involved in this effect. Quinoa contains more than twice the riboflavin of wheat or oats and seven times the riboflavin of rice. Riboflavin can enhance energy production within cells, naturally promoting energy metabolism in brain cells and muscle cells, all of which have been shown to be extremely beneficial in migraine headaches.

Quinoa for grain intolerance

Those who cannot tolerate grain products are often helpless and no longer know what to eat. However, pseudo-cereal quinoa is a wonderful alternative to grains. This is due to the fact that the total protein in quinoa consists of only between 0.5 and at most 7 percent prolamines (a main component of gluten), while in wheat protein the prolamin content accounts for around 35 percent.

It is precisely the prolamines that often cause grain intolerance. Quinoa is therefore well tolerated by people with grain allergies and wheat or gluten sensitivity, as the prolamin content is very low and it is gluten-free.

What you need to know about saponins

In addition to all the valuable ingredients, quinoa also contains so-called undesirable substances. These include ostensibly different saponins which, although they only have a limited acute toxic effect, are suspected of irritating the intestinal mucosa. In addition, these substances taste unpleasantly bitter, so they are removed before quinoa is eaten, including by indigenous peoples.

The saponin content can vary considerably depending on where it is grown and the strain. An international team of researchers analyzed 21 quinoa varieties and determined that 100 g of quinoa seeds can contain between 0 and 6 mg of saponins. The maximum measured saponin content is 2.3 percent. In that sense, eliminating these substances makes perfect sense.

There are several methods to rid quinoa of saponins, which are mainly found in the outer seed coat. The commercially available granules are usually already peeled because this allows around 50 percent of the saponins to be removed. In addition, due to the high water solubility, undesirable substances can be extracted by washing or soaking the granules.

Saponins also offer benefits

But the saponins, which belong to the secondary plant substances, also have positive properties. According to studies, they act z. B. against bacteria, fungi, free radicals, and inflammation.  The indigenous population in the Andes uses the water in which the seeds were washed as a detergent or as a means to disinfect wounds.

Strains have now been developed that contain little or no saponins, which sounds good, but it’s not necessarily good. Because the saponins make the quinoa plants strong by protecting them from pathogens. If the plants no longer contain saponins, pesticides must be used, which serve this purpose and then end up on our plates.

Is quinoa dangerous for children?

Again and again, you can read on the internet that quinoa is harmful to children, mostly because of the saponins it contains. It should be said that the commercially available quinoa has been freed from the bitter substances by up to 95 percent. In this regard, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment announced that due to a lack of data on the quality of the pseudocereals on the market in Germany and the products made from them, no reliable statement can yet be made as to whether these are also suitable for infants and small children.

In any case, in the Andes, the pseudo-grain is the basis of nutrition not only for adults but also for children. If quinoa were dangerous for children, the indigenous peoples would not have been feeding them to their offspring for thousands of years. Even in the EU, there are now discussions about allowing quinoa for industrially manufactured baby food because it is gluten-free and the protein it contains is of high quality.

However, this can only happen when a certain limit value for saponins is defined and of course also observed, so that quinoa and products made from it can be considered and traded as child-safe.

Raw and unpeeled quinoa seeds are definitely not suitable for infants and small children, if only because the little ones can easily choke on them. If you want to be on the safe side, you can follow the advice of the German Society for Nutrition and only give quinoa to children aged 2 and over.

The cultivation of quinoa

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, around 160,000 tons of quinoa were harvested worldwide in 2019. The most important growing countries include Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, where around 95 percent of quinoa is grown.

Far from South America, the pseudo-grain is hardly cultivated. But there are already a few open-minded farmers in Europe who grow quinoa. In Germany, around 60 farmers cultivate quinoa on around 100 hectares, and at least 7,000 tons of the valuable seeds can be harvested there every year.

Regional quinoa from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland

In Germany, for example, farmers in the Rhine Valley, in the Münsterland, and in the Lüneburg Heath have been successfully cultivating quinoa for years.

In Austria, the pseudo-grain is mainly cultivated in Styria, and in Switzerland, it is the so-called IP-SUISSE farmers who are among the pioneers in quinoa cultivation. This is an association of family businesses that are committed to protecting the environment. Accordingly, neither pesticides nor growth regulators are used in quinoa cultivation, which is controlled by an independent control body.

When is quinoa in season?

In Central Europe, quinoa is sown from the beginning to the middle of April. Can be harvested from mid-September.

There are more than 120 varieties of quinoa

There are many types of quinoa. The white quinoa variety is the most common, but there are more than 120 varieties of quinoa. The different colors are based on which dyes (secondary plant substances) such as e.g. B. carotenoids and anthocyanins dominate.

  • White or pale yellow quinoa is the most common and therefore usually a little cheaper. It contains the least fat, the taste is mild and nutty. The cooking time is 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Yellow quinoa is similar to white in terms of flavor and cooking time.
  • Red quinoa seeds are grainier and hold their shape better when cooked than the previously mentioned varieties. The flavor is more pronounced and the cooking time is 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Black quinoa is similar to red but slightly harder, cooking time is the same. It tastes particularly earthy, has a higher content of phytochemicals, and therefore has greater antioxidant activity than light-colored varieties.

Why fair trade quinoa?

We have already reported that the price of quinoa has skyrocketed due to the strong global demand that countless people in the producing countries can hardly afford their staple food. This naturally raises the question of whether it can even be ethical for us to buy quinoa.

Necessarily! Because if people in industrialized countries were to completely do without quinoa, this would not be a solution. Many people would lose their jobs in the producing countries and poverty would increase. On the other hand, it makes sense to consciously rely on fair trade quinoa, which promotes sustainable quinoa cultivation.

If you rely on fair trade, you help to guarantee the quinoa farmers and harvest workers a long-term source of income and a stable minimum price for their products without destroying the ecological balance of the Andean region. You should also keep this in mind when examining the prices. Cheap quinoa products are therefore not necessarily sustainable!

The pesticide load of quinoa

Analyzes for pesticide residues are rare for quinoa, which reduces their informative value. Nevertheless, they point out that the pseudo-cereals are often contaminated.

In Austria, the environmental protection organization GLOBAL 2000, the human rights organization Südwind and the Lower Austrian Chamber of Labor examined so-called superfoods in 2017 – but only 2 samples of quinoa from South America – and discovered pesticides that are no longer permitted in the EU. The heavy metal cadmium was also detected in both quinoa samples, with the permitted maximum being exceeded by 40 and 60 percent. (25)

In 2020, the Swiss consumer portal K-Tipp revealed that when it comes to quinoa, it is not always organic when it says organic. Of 12 quinoa samples, 5 were contaminated, 4 of which were organic. Alnatura’s organic quinoa, which contained chlorpyrifos, performed worst. This insecticide is already banned in some EU countries and Switzerland because it is toxic to animals such as amphibians, bees and fish and is suspected of causing brain damage in unborn babies.

At least the other tested quinoa products from e.g. B. Rapunzel, Migros, Moulin d’Yverdon, and others. nothing to complain about, proving that very good quinoa products are commercially available.

The bottom line is that the recommendation is to use organic fair-trade quinoa or organic quinoa from your region. This way you can contribute to protecting the environment, the farmers or people in the growing countries, and your own health at the same time.

Buying Quinoa

Quinoa is available at organic markets, health food stores, and well-stocked supermarkets and drugstores. Quinoa products include seeds, flour, grist, flakes, and puffed quinoa, also known as the Incas’ popcorn. The quinoa seeds are usually already washed and peeled, as the peel contains the saponins (bitter substances) presented above.

What should be considered when storing quinoa

As with grain, when storing quinoa, the ideal place is dark, cool, dry, and protected from light and air. The pseudo-grain should be used quickly so that it does not become rancid and thus inedible. This is particularly true when the granules have been crushed, ie flour, flakes, and grist. Pay attention to the stated best-before date.

The use of quinoa in the kitchen

Traditionally, only the whole quinoa seeds and leaves were used for a long time, later flour was ground from the grains. The raw, cooked and roasted seeds, flour, and leaves are used by the Andean peoples to this day, especially as a side dish and to make flatbreads, salads, soups, and drinks.

Puffed quinoa has also been eaten for thousands of years. Inca popcorn is made by exposing the seeds to high temperatures and pressure. They then pop up, as we know from the corn kernels. The puffed quinoa can be eaten directly or ground up.

The nutrient losses

As with any other food, the ingredients change as a result of the cooking process, and their content can decrease drastically. A 2020 study looked at how peeling, cooking, pressure heating, and baking affect quinoa seeds.

It was found that peeled quinoa contains more protein than unpeeled quinoa. However, peeling reduces the fiber content.

The puffing process leads to a loss of protein, oleic acid, and linoleic acid. The higher the temperature and the longer the cooking process takes, the more the nutritional quality of quinoa suffers.

Can quinoa be eaten raw?

In theory, quinoa could be eaten raw. But the unpeeled granules are very hard and unless you chew them like a grinder you will swallow them and excrete them without enjoying the valuable ingredients – unless you germinate the seeds first. However, peeled quinoa is ideal for eating raw in small quantities, for example in muesli or in a salad.

The preparation of quinoa

Quinoa can be eaten much like a grain, either raw or cooked. Basically, quinoa is rinsed well under running water before any type of preparation. For fresh grain muesli, quinoa can be crushed and soaked, just like grain. Some roast the whole grain and add it to muesli or salads.

However, the most well-known and popular way of enjoying quinoa is to cook the seeds in a manner similar to rice. To do this, quinoa is briefly boiled in twice the amount of water and then simmered at a low temperature for about 10 minutes. You then take them off the stove and let them swell covered for another 10 minutes or longer. Just be careful not to overcook quinoa. The granules then become too soft and lose their bite. The taste also suffers significantly in this case. When done right, which is by no means difficult, quinoa has a wonderfully nutty flavor.

Quinoa can also be prepared cold – similar to a rice salad. Add diced organic tomatoes, chopped spring onions or chives, and a marinade of linseed oil, lemon juice, and herb salt. Dishes with quinoa are prepared incredibly quickly, fill you up and leave your whole body feeling light but extremely satisfied.

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Written by Bella Adams

I'm a professionally-trained, executive chef with over ten years in Restaurant Culinary and hospitality management. Experienced in specialized diets, including Vegetarian, Vegan, Raw foods, whole food, plant-based, allergy-friendly, farm-to-table, and more. Outside of the kitchen, I write about lifestyle factors that impact well-being.

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