Quinoa: What Is Behind The “Superfood”?

Cultivated in the Andes for thousands of years, quinoa has also been experiencing a real boom here for a long time. But what is behind the “superfood” and how healthy is it actually?

Quinoa has been grown in the Andes for around 5,000 years and is becoming increasingly popular here too.
You can also eat the sprouts and leaves of quinoa, but mainly the millimeter-sized seeds are eaten.
Quinoa is packed with healthy ingredients and is gluten-free, but it’s almost always imported from South America.
While quinoa has been cultivated in the Andes for thousands of years as an energy-rich staple food, it only caught on late here. For some time now, however, not only vegans and vegetarians have been swearing by the “superfood”. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon even declared 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa”. Reason enough to take a closer look at the pseudo-grain.

What is quinoa?

Many believe that quinoa is a grain. But that’s not true. Quinoa – also called quinoa, Andean millet or Inca grain in Germany – belongs to the foxtail family, as does spinach. However, since quinoa has many similarities to cereals and is used in a similar way, it is one of the pseudo-cereals, just like buckwheat.

In the Andes, quinoa has been known as a cultivated plant for 5,000 years. It grows at altitudes of up to 4,200 meters, even on nutrient-poor soil and is easy to care for. Quinoa is an annual plant that grows up to three meters tall. About 250,000 tons of quinoa are grown worldwide every year, more than 95 percent of it in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Around 7,000 tons are grown in Germany every year, just under 3% of global cultivation.

You can eat the young shoots and leaves of the plant – e.g. as a vegetable or salad – as well as the millimeter-sized seeds. The quinoa seeds are primarily used and cooked for preparation, similar to rice. There are different types of quinoa:

White quinoa is the most commonly available and usually cheaper than the other varieties. It is the lowest in fat and has a nutty taste.
Black quinoa tastes very similar to white quinoa, but is a bit harder and therefore needs to be cooked a little longer.
Red quinoa, like the black variety, takes a little longer to cook. Because it keeps its beautiful shape, it is ideal for salads.
Puffed quinoa is mainly used as an ingredient in muesli and is the popcorn of the Incas, so to speak.

What’s in it – how healthy is quinoa?

Quinoa is very rich in energy due to carbohydrates, many of which are unsaturated fatty acids, and protein. Due to the complex carbohydrates it contains, the body’s digestive processes take longer when consuming quinoa. This creates a longer feeling of satiety.

In addition, quinoa has many healthy ingredients: essential amino acids such as lysine and many minerals – among other things, quinoa contains magnesium, iron, calcium and potassium. Important during pregnancy: Quinoa contains significantly more folic acid than wheat, for example.

Since the plant is not a sweet grass, quinoa does not contain gluten. For consumers with a gluten intolerance, it is therefore – like buckwheat – a good alternative to spelt or wheat.

However, to protect against pests, the shell of the seeds contains saponins, which can damage the intestinal mucosa and blood cells. The seeds are therefore not suitable for consumption in the unpeeled state. To be on the safe side, you should always rinse the hulled grains well before cooking to remove the remaining saponins.

Is quinoa ecologically safe?

Due to its many healthy ingredients, quinoa is a suitable food for a balanced diet. However, we hardly ever grow quinoa. And the transport routes from the quinoa fields in South America to the supermarkets in Europe are very long. With the current level of transport, this means that fossil fuels have a negative impact on the climate.

A small plus point: quinoa only requires about a third of the amount of water needed for cultivation as wheat.

To make sure that the quinoa farmers are paid fairly and that the environment is not damaged too much by quinoa cultivation, you should look out for products with an organic and/or fair trade seal. And be careful: Ready-made quinoa muesli mixtures sometimes also contain palm oil.

Prepare quinoa properly

Quinoa is most commonly cooked and served as an accompaniment to fish, meat, or vegetables. How to properly cook quinoa:

Place the quinoa in a saucepan with twice the amount of water and heat.
After boiling, the grains should simmer on a low heat for about ten minutes.
Then the quinoa has to swell for another ten minutes with the stove switched off.
Before serving, you can season the quinoa with salt, pepper and olive oil. A little vegetable broth in the cooking water adds extra flavor.

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