What's the deal with quinoa?

  It’s not new – even outside of South America -, and it has been around for a few years now, but have you tried quinoa (pronounced: keen-wah) yet? Yes, I know it has a bit of a health-nut and trendy reputation now, but if you can get past that you might find that it is a great addition to your larder.

First of all, it’s not a grain, even though it is often listed among the grains, or at least in the ‘starchy carb’ category. Quinoa is a ‘pseudo-cereal’, but really it’s a seed, just like buckwheat.

Couscous with vegetables

As it is not a grain at all, it is of course gluten-free, which is one reason it is so popular. Another is that it is a ‘complete protein’ food. So, what does that mean? Proteins are composed of varying combinations of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential, meaning the body cannot make them. They have to come from the diet.

If you are an omnivore, you won’t struggle to find complete proteins as all animal proteins (meat, fish, eggs and dairy) contain all essential amino acids, but not all plant proteins do. Combining grains and pulses creates a complete protein meal, and some traditional dishes must have been created that way intuitively (Mexican chilli: beans and corn; Indian dhal: lentils and rice; Japanese edamame and rice). It is not, however, strictly necessary to consume all 9 essential amino acids with the same meal, as long as they are all covered in a day.

Quinoa, however, is one of those rare complete plant proteins. It is also rich in minerals, particularly magnesium. Magnesium deficiency is common, most likely due to the low consumption of green leafy vegetables. Apart from magnesium, quinoa also contains significant amounts of manganese and phosphorus, and is a good source of folate, zinc, iron and copper.

It also contains valuable phytonutrients, the flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol. Quercetin has been found to be beneficial for allergy sufferers, especially if their symptoms affect the upper respiratory tract. But it is also thought to support heart health, an even blood pressure and general health, as it is one of the antioxidants. Kaempferol, too, has antioxidant properties, protects DNA and the lining of the arteries. Needless to say: Quinoa is also a great source of fibre.

All the health benefits of quinoa aside, it is also very versatile, easy to cook and of course tasty. It takes just 15 minutes to cook, and once cooked, you can use it to replace bulgur wheat, eg in tabouleh, or like rice in both hot and cold dishes. Mixed with finely chopped veg and spices as well as a binding agent (whether that’s egg or, say, coconut flour), quinoa also makes lovely burgers.

For more more about quinoa – how to cook it, how to use it and the ethical downsides of the seed (and where to get it ethically), read next week's Nutrilicious News. It is not too late to sign up!